By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Munich
Many of the world's most powerful people -- including heads of state, foreign and defense ministers, Nobel laureates and captains of industry -- had converged at Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel at his invitation this weekend. On Sunday morning, though, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador, looked a bit perplexed as he stood on the stage of the hotel's ballroom. "We were so close," he said. "We must go on."
By close, he meant close to creating a joint response to the veto against a United Nations resolution condemning the violence in Syria by Moscow and Beijing, a move taken Saturday that had been denounced by one speaker after the other in Munich -- whether it was German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, his American counterpart Hillary Clinton or Republican Senator John McCain -- as a scandal. Behind the scenes, in the hotel's rooms, the discussions continued.
High-ranking participants from around the world wrestled with sentences, haggled over formulations, but nothing came of those efforts, Ischinger announced as he took to the stage. Indeed, Russia and China delivered this weekend on their threat to block a United Nations resolution against the violence in Syria. Both countries applied their veto power in the UN Security Council and are continuing with their "nyet" strategy: "No" to sanctions against Syria, "no" to halting Russian weapons deliveries to Damascus and, in particular, "no" to any draft sanctions resolution that did not expressly rule out the deployment of foreign military force in the country.
In the end, the joint resolution drafted by the Arabs, Europeans and Americans failed, and the killing continued in Syria. In Homs, more than 400 people are believed to have been killed on Friday and Saturday, and far more than 1,000 people were injured. People on the ground reported that leader Bashar Assad's troops attacked a peaceful protest -- demonstrators who are demanding reforms in the country and for the president to step down.
Russia and China 'On the Wrong Side of History'
The resolution didn't even contain any sanctions. The text of the resolution had already been watered down before the vote in response to considerable pressure from Russia. Ultimately, Moscow still refused to support it -- making the tone of the conversations in Munich on Sunday even angrier.
Pointing to Russia and China, Yemeni Nobel Peace Price recipient Tawakkul Karman lamented: "In the name of the Arab youth, I condemn the position of these countries. They support the criminal regime of Bashar Assad." Kenneth Roth, the head of the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, added that the actions of Russia and China had made the Security Council "irrelevant." US Senator Joe Lieberman railed that the Chinese and the Russians were on the "wrong side of history" and had now isolated themselves in the international community, just as Assad himself had done.
Moscow doesn't seem particularly moved by the outrage over its veto. Irina Yarovaya, a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma, for Putin's United Russia Party, said the world should "thank Russia and China today for their balanced and peace-building mission." The Kremlin considers it a provocation that the West still went ahead with a vote on the Security Council despite Moscow's reservations. Officials there are holding the West indirectly responsible for the escalation. "Regrettably, the authors of the Syrian draft did not want to make additional efforts to reach a consensus," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov posted on Twitter on Sunday.
Russia is firmly sticking to its support of Assad, who is considered to be Moscow's last remaining ally in the Middle East. Damascus purchases Russian rockets, Yak-130 fighter jets and it cooperates on a large scale with Russian energy companies.
Time Running Out
Beijing also continues to work together with the Assad regime. In Munich, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun was still on the stage on Saturday being respectfully wooed by those sitting on a panel with him. Previously, the limelight had been exclusively focused on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He insisted that "law in international relations" must be placed above everything else, and that if the United Nations condemned violence in Syria, then the actions of the Syrian opposition would also have to be condemned.
That was the dilemma this year at the Munich Security Conference, which is Germany's most respected and important foreign policy event. It is a place where even the supposed bad guys -- or rather, those who are currently considered to be the bad guys -- are also given a platform to speak. When it comes to laying the blame, though, Western diplomats offered clear assessments: With its brutal poker game, Russia had been responsible for a true scandal. Top diplomats said they felt as though the Russians had been "pulling their legs." And, for their part, officials at Germany's Foreign Ministry said they want to continue fighting for a Syria resolution at the UN.
However, it may take some time before that happens. After all, how can things progress in the region in a time when Europe is busy dealing with its debt crisis and the United States is showing little appetite for new adventures in the Middle East?
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is planning to travel together with the head of Russia's SVR foreign intelligence agency to Syria at the beginning of this week. But it remains unclear who they plan to meet with or what their mandate will be. Meanwhile, time is running out. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a grim scenario if Assad remains in office: "More bloodshed, increasing resistance by those whose families are being killed and whose homes are being bombed, and a greater likelihood that Syria will descend into civil war."
During the foreign policy debates in Munich, a number of options could be heard. A breaking off of all diplomatic relations? The creation of an international contact group? Greater support for the Syrian opposition?
Behind the Scenes Wrangling
US Senator Lieberman said in Munich there was a whole range of measures the international community could take without direct intervention. He added, however, that a "special place in hell" was reserved for those who attempted to remain neutral in times of moral challenges. But he also stated that there are no easy answers.
Behind the scenes, the wrangling continues. According to the US magazine Foreign Policy, President Barack Obama's advisers are coming up with a secret plan to support the rebels. The White House is seeking to avoid another scenario in which it is accused of having ignored a democracy movement in the Middle East for too long, as proved to be the case in Egypt and, to a certain extent, in Libya. Foreign Policy writes that Obama's National Security Council is already attempting to coordinate support for the Syrian opposition, which could ultimately even include the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in Syria.
But a corridor like that would have to be protected through the establishment of a no-fly zone. Who would monitor it? Washington is also lacking reliable partners in the Syrian opposition.
In addition, the potential diplomatic effects of any intervention in Syria could be massive -- far greater than in Libya, as the spectacular veto by the Chinese and Russians makes clear.
Thus, further delaying on the part of the West can't be ruled out, despite the disastrous message sent out by the failed UN resolution. "It's quite clear -- this is a license to do more of the same and worse," Peter Harling, an expert on Syria at the International Crisis Group, told the New York Times.
With additional reporting by Matthias Gebauer and Benjamin Bidder.
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