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What’s behind division in U.N. Security Council on Syria?

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The often muted rivalry between Russia and China, on one side, and Western powers, on the other, honed into a clash in the United Nations Security Council this week when the eastern powers vetoed what would have been the first legally-binding resolution against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising in Syria.

American ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice delivered a combative response to the Russian and Chinese decisions, accusing the two countries of wanting to continue arms sales to Syria at the expense of civilians demanding freedom. “During this season of change, the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators,” Rice said.

The last time Russia and China together vetoed a U.N. council resolution was in 2008 when they opposed proposed sanctions against Zimbabwe. Their latest move reflects serious fears of increased Western influence and domination in the Middle East and highlights Syria's strategic importance between rival world powers.

“Both countries are known for brutal crackdowns on dissent. Both will lose out if the Assad regime goes. Both have military trade and other economic interest with Syria. Both have close relations with Syria's big brother, Iran. Both are hedging their bets that Assad will survive this. Both countries will be shut out of Syria for some time after Assad is ousted,” said Paul Sullivan, adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

Asked why Syria, unlike Libya, turned out to be so divisive in the Security Council, veteran journalist and Professor Emeritus at the American University in Cairo, Abdallah Schleifer, said both countries were concerned “that a U.N. Resolution might provide the justification for a subsequent American or Anglo-American-French intervention in Syria, since the intervention in Libya has turned out to be successful at minimal cost and now America has a positive relationship with the new leaders of Libya.

“Even commanders of the revolutionary Libyan forces with Islamist backgrounds have good words for America, and both Russia and China are rivals for world influence with the Americans-though at present Syria does not resemble Libya,” Schleifer added.

He said that what made U.S. intervention a success story in Libya was that a rebel political authority existed in Benghazi, and not in Istanbul as is the case of the Syrian opposition leadership; this was made possible because there was enough of a cohesive armed rebel force to have liberated Benghazi and that too doesn't exist in Syria.

“A more likely reason is that both Russia and China are nervous about any U.N. interventions, be they peace protests or sanctions since both countries have their own local uprisings in outlying districts to contend with,” Schleifer said.

Russia and China have expressed concern that a more aggressive approach towards Syria will only throw the region into unpredictable turmoil, especially since Syria shares borders with Israel and has strong allies in the region, mainly Hezbollah and Iran. By saying they are afraid of more people being killed if tough measures are taken against Assad, Russia and China sought to coat their stances in a humanitarian perspective, which is essentially what the West has been doing for a long time.

On the surface the difference between the two camps appears to be clear. The West says Assad must be punished because he kills; Russia and China say if he is punished there will be more killings. However, differences on humanitarian issues, as the Syrian one is proclaimed to be, often rarely develop into bitter disputes in the United Nations. Often times, only deeply strategic issues involving major geopolitical and economic interests provoke such bitter rebukes in the United Nations.