The vetoes by Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council, cast to forestall possible action against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, were a major disappointment.
But is Russia simply going to prop up Assad? I do not think so. The fact that Putin sent his Foreign Minister to meet with Assad immediately after the vote suggests he had a more complex message to send.
I believe that what the minister is telling Assad is something like this: “Look Bashar, we would like to see you stay in office; we’ve been good friends with you and your family for a long time. But you’re going about this the wrong way. Look at us — we have a ‘soft authoritarianism’ that works. Putin and Medvedev have been in power for over a decade and I expect Putin to be in power for another 12 years to come. You don’t have to kill thousands of people to stay in power – in fact if you keep up like this we won’t be able to keep supporting you, and you will end up like Mubarak.”
Of course, I don’t expect Assad to change course — his shelling of Homs under what he sees as the shield provided by the Russian/Chinese veto suggests he still sees things only in one way (as most dictators do); the rebels are traitors who must be crushed.
So I expect that at some point in the near future, the U.N. Security Council will have another vote on a similar but slightly modified measure, and this time Russia will abstain, saying “we tried to reason with Assad, but he refused, so while we do not like this resolution we do not see an alternative.” China will not likely veto the resolution on their own, but will follow the Russian abstention. And so we will be back in a Libya-like situation where the Western powers have both regional and international backing to do something to stop the massacre of civilians.
In the meantime, the U.S., Europe, and the Arab League should work with the Syrian opposition to help them overcome the factional divisions in the opposition movement; only a unified opposition leadership will be able to request and gain external support.