Moscow and Beijing are determined to avoid a pro-Western alternative replacing another regime in the Middle East. Which explains their dual vetoes at the UN Security Council.
A great game in the Middle East plays Syria like a pawn
Pity those long-suffering Syrians yearning to be rid of President Bashar Al Assad the geopolitics of their plight: not only do they find themselves in the maelstrom of an increasingly sectarian civil war that is turning their country into a battlefront in the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; their deadly stalemate may be reinforced by renewed great-power conflict.
Saturday's veto by Russia and China of a UN Security Council resolution demanding a halt to Syrian military action against rebellious citizenry marked a turning point whose implications reach well beyond the Syrian crisis. Moscow and Beijing complained that the resolution had put insufficient emphasis on stopping armed actions by an increasingly militarised opposition. Indeed, a civil war is already under way, fanned by the regime's bludgeoning of Homs and other rebellious towns. It's not hard to see how Mr Al Assad may have persuaded himself that he will fare worse under a political plan that requires his departure than on the path of civil war.
He may be hoping to emulate Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, who survived the bloody Balkan wars he instigated by making himself indispensable to restoring peace. Even now, it's increasingly difficult to imagine the conflict being resolved by a political plan based on conditions that prevailed before the war broke out.
But for China and Russia, the calculations may have been less about Syria's situation than their own. Both insisted they were acting to avoid a repeat of Libya, where Nato powers used a Security Council resolution authorising force to protect civilians as a legal pretext to mount an air campaign in support of the rebels against Muammar Qaddafi. Moscow and Beijing are determined to avoid a pro-Western alternative replacing another regime in the Middle East.
Russia has immediate strategic interests in Syria, such as its naval base at Tartus, but it is also increasingly inclined to define its global political role in opposition to US hegemony. The Obama administration's recently declared reorientation of US strategic priorities towards containing Chinese influence in the Pacific left no doubt that Washington and Beijing regard one another as rivals. China is inclined to push back against the US in the Middle East — particularly in Iran, a regime independent of Washington that also offers China a massive source of energy that can be shipped by pipeline.
So, the Syria veto may have simply been the first volley in a new era of strategic rivalries, Russia and China making use of the anachronistic veto power awarded when the UN was created to the five Allied powers that had defeated Germany and Japan in the Second World War. As coincidence would have it, those same five powers - the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China also became the original five nuclear-armed states, acquiring a strategic veto of an altogether different magnitude.
Powers great and small have often ignored Security Council mandates, but they do carry the force of international law and can be used as a basis to rally international coalitions for action - such as the Libya intervention, or the US-led operation to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. And the Russians and Chinese were clearly willing to stand against the consensus to prevent even a foot in the door for any kind of international action on Syria. Instead, those looking to support or arm the opposition would have to do so outside of any UN authorisation, while Russia will continue to arm the regime - and perhaps use the leverage obtained through its support to press Mr Al Assad to make limited changes.
Syria is not a strategic priority for Washington, of course, and there's no appetite in the US for any type of military intervention. Nor is it a strategic priority for China. But for both, it may be a warm-up bout ahead of a clash over Iran.
Those in Washington urging the most activist response to the Syria crisis do so on the basis that Mr Al Assad is Iran's key ally in the Arab world, and removing him would deal a major blow to Tehran. For Moscow and Beijing, Syria has been an opportunity to fire a warning shot across Washington's bow. It ought to be clear now - if there was ever much doubt - that there's no prospect of winning Security Council support for any significant escalation of sanctions against Iran. And UN sanctions are the only ones that member states are obliged to abide by - China, Turkey, India and a number of other countries are simply ignoring many of the more punishing unilateral sanctions adopted by the US and EU.
Despite Washington having worked hard to win Russian and Chinese support for the limited sanctions adopted by the Security Council, Moscow and Beijing have long made clear that while they believe Iran must comply with all of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, they don't believe Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. They argue that the sanctions and threats are counterproductive, and they have demanded a greater emphasis on dialogue with Tehran in resolving the issue.
Russia and China are part of the primary western negotiating vehicle with Iran - the Permanent Five plus Germany - and the Syria vote reminds Iran that significant strategic differences persist within that group. It may also portend a more assertive effort by Russia to sell its own version of a compromise on Iran, which has thus far not been embraced by western powers - although key regional players such as Ankara (sharply critical of Moscow and Beijing over the Syria veto) are far closer to the Sino-Russian position on Iran.
Syria's conflict - and the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme - are unfolding against a backdrop of intensified regional and global strategic rivalry, marked by the re-emergence of old powers and the emergence of new ones, all of which combines to create a Middle East landscape less predictable and more turbulent than it's ever been.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York.
Follow on Twitter: @TonyKaron