When the UN Security Council voted last month to authorise a monitoring mission in Syria, it was a rare moment of unity and solidarity for the 15-member council. The outcome of the vote led to the deployment of approximately 300 UN monitors across five Syrian cities, their sole mandate being to apply all possible efforts to stop acts of violence specifically targeted at civilians in the country.
However, early on Sunday, news broke that hundreds of villagers, including at least 32 children were killed in the village of El-Houleh, a Syrian town near the central city of Homs. The strong suggestion being that the government regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the massacre. UN observers have reported that aside from the 32 children, monitors counted more than 60 dead adults, bringing the overall casualties to approximately 92 with more than 300 wounded. In response to these allegations, the Syrian government accused “terrorists” (its usual phrase for the opposition) of killing the civilians.
In a joint statement, the secretary general of the UN and the joint special envoy for Syria condemned the brutal crime involving the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force which is seen as a flagrant violation on international law and of the commitments that the Syrian government made to cease the use of heavy weapons on civilians.
The violence in El-Houleh has also been seen as the most flagrant violation of the UN and Arab League peace plan which was negotiated and brokered by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in April this year.
Since al-Assad’s government and opposition forces accepted Annan’s peace plan in March, at least 1 635 people have been killed. The events in El-Houleh are certain to call into question the continued effectiveness of the six-point peace plan going forward.
The reaction to the news of renewed bloodshed and loss of innocent civilian life has also taken on a sectarian undertone. Anti-Assad forces have said that much of the slaughter had been carried out by pro-government thugs referred to as “shabiha”, from the surrounding area. El-Houleh is a Sunni Muslim town, while three villages around it are mostly Alawite and a fourth is Shi’ite Muslim.
Since the president and the core of his security services are also Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, there has been renewed calls for sectarian revenge. This is a dangerous development as anti-government rebels are led by a majority of Sunni Muslims. The threat being that renewed tensions and conflict along sectarian lines could plunge Syria into further turmoil and also open the door for al-Qaeda’s involvement in the Syrian uprising.
The Free Syrian Army who are leading the revolt against the incumbent Syrian regime have stressed that the fight is for democracy, not sharia. However, if the situation on the ground remains the same this could potentially open the door for jihadists. Also given Syria’s geo-political strategic significance in the region, any further escalation in civil unrest and the infiltration of al-Qaeda could prove disastrous for long term stability in the region.
With the UN-Arab League six-point peace plan seemingly ineffective and current secretary general of the UN Ban Ki-moon admitting that the UN does not currently have a “plan B” for Syria, the only realistic solution lies with the UN Security Council.
The 15-member council includes five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) and 10 elected non-permanent members (Azerbaijan, Columbia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Pakistan, Portugal, Togo and South Africa).
In February, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League plan to facilitate a political transition in Syria. Under Article 27 of the UN Charter, Security Council decisions on all substantive matters require the affirmative votes of nine members. A negative vote, or veto, also known as the rule of “great power unanimity”, by a permanent member prevents adoption of a proposal, even if it has received the required number of affirmative votes.
The reasoning behind the Chinese and Russian veto vote on Syria was based on the principle that proposed action may further complicate events in Syria. In addition, that any move may put undue emphasis on pressuring the Syrian government, prejudge the result of the dialogue or impose any solution would not help resolve the Syrian issue.
Ostensibly Russian and Chinese concerns also linger that the UN’s authorisation of all necessary measures to protect civilians was used to bring down Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, an outcome that the Russians and Chinese claim they do not want to see repeated in Syria.
More strategically for Russia however, is the fact that the Kremlin’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is in Syria, and also sells weapons to al-Assad’s government. Therefore many observers understand that it is not necessarily within Russian interests to see the end of al-Assad’s regime.
Chinese special interest in Syria and vetoing the Security Council’s resolution is grounded in the fact that Beijing’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – which is an intergovernmental mutual security organisation founded in 2001 – is attempting to grow its clout as a regional and international force as is seen in the East as a counterbalance to Nato and the United States.
However, with increasing bloodshed and loss of life in Syria, the Chinese and Russian stance on al-Assad’s regime can no longer be sustained. These two powerful countries have the diplomatic strength to assist in a negotiated settlement with Damascus with the only tangible solution being that al-Assad steps down and a roadmap is put in place to hold elections in the coming 12 months. However, for this to happen there will need to be a unified vote in the Security Council which is scheduled to meet for an emergency sitting in the coming days.
Now more than ever is the time for the Security Council and the international community to be united in its response to Syria. But this will take decisive and unified action and resolve on behalf of China and Russia.