The Washington Post has an interesting editorial on the situation in Syria. It essentially calls for regime change, arguing that the removal of the Assad regime is the only sure way to stop the killing. It adds, however, that foreign governments must leave regime change to the Syrian people. It does not really explain why, in its opinion, foreign governments cannot topple Assad, but it adds that outsiders should limit their involvement to ‘abandoning efforts to “engage” the dictator’ and ‘stepping up political and economic sanctions.’ Gaining an international consensus on this is, as it acknowledges, problematic. It suggests putting the matter to the Security Council
The European Union made a major contribution to that effort last month by banning oil imports from Syria, which obtains up to $16 million a day from sales to Europe. It’s not clear that the regime can find another market for that crude, though its finance minister said it will try selling it to Russia and China. The United States and its allies should be pressing those countries not to bail out Damascus — and to stop blocking sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. If Moscow insists on protecting Mr. Assad, it should be forced to vote on a Security Council resolution so that Arabs throughout the Middle East can see its support for bloody repression.
This is a useful suggestion. But I think we need to explore some of the assumptions behind it. First, that the anticipated Russian veto is motivated by selfish interests i.e. that by blocking sanctions and ‘protecting Assad’ Russia is profiting at the expense of the Syrian people. This would provide a substantive reason for dismissing the Russian veto as unreasonable. But how can we be certain that sanctions will benefit the Syrian people? In vetoing the sanctions Russia might be acting selfishly but that might also prevent additional harm to the Syrian people. Recall the problems with sanctions against Iraq.
This raises the second point, which is the assumption in the Washington Post’s thinking that a Russian vote against sanctions will be in the minority. This raises the procedural test of whether Russia’s position is unreasonable or not – a test that western nations should consider in their reasoning on the validity of their substantive objections. Of course if Russia was the only state to vote against such a resolution it would add credence to the argument that it was acting contrary to the international interest. But could the Washington Post be as certain of its position if only the EU members of the Security Council voted in favour of the proposed resolution.
I guess my point is that in deciding what is “the international community’s response” there needs to be a careful consideration of both the substantive and procedural.