China Abstains and Gets out of the Way
The Security Council, by a vote of 10-0-5 (five abstentions by China, Russia, Indonesia, Qatar, and South Africa), authorized the imposition of a tribunal to investigate, try, and sentence the murderers of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and maybe some other Lebanese citizens possibly murdered by Syrian agents.
Middle Eastern affairs are way out of my bailiwick, but this is nuts.
Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora invited the United Nations in because he was unable to reach an agreement with pro-Syrian and Hizbollah forces inside Lebanon concerning the investigation.
In the least generous interpretation, Siniora surrendered Lebanese sovereignty for the sake of advantage in a domestic political squabble.
That’s not the kind of international action China likes.
Theoretically, if Taiwan deadlocked between pro and anti-reunification forces, a pro-independence president could cite the Hariri precedent and ask the Security Council to help out.
I imagine China abstained, instead of vetoing the tribunal resolution, in order to stay on the good, not-blowing-up people side of the debate and avoid an argument over a situation in which it has little leverage and few compelling interests.
Syria is a bridge too far for China: too distant, too isolated, too beyond sustained, effective Chinese assistance for China to risk its political and diplomatic capital in the Middle East with an overt demonstration of support for Syria against the concerted efforts by Europe and the United States to establish the tribunal.
But after the tribunal gets going, well that’s another matter.
The tribunal is authorized under Section VII of the UN Charter—making cooperation an enforceable, binding obligation on member states, including Syria--which is meant to give it intimidating weight.
News reports sometimes imply that Section VII authorizes military action to enforce the resolution.
Here are the relevant articles of Section VII:
The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.
In order to prevent an aggravation of the situation, the Security Council may, before making the recommendations or deciding upon the measures provided for in Article 39, call upon the parties concerned to comply with such provisional measures as it deems necessary or desirable. Such provisional measures shall be without prejudice to the rights, claims, or position of the parties concerned. The Security Council shall duly take account of failure to comply with such provisional measures.
The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.
Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.
Long story short:
Any enforcement action requires further Security Council action. Article 41 actions are limited to non-military measures. Article 42 is the kitchen sink, including military action.
As far as China is concerned, Article 42 ain’t never gonna happen. China is dedicated to denying the United States and its allies a hunting license for military action in the Middle East or elsewhere. "No more than Article 41--if that" has been the Chinese rallying cry on Iran and North Korea. And that will be the case on Syria.
Bloggers can be wrong about anything and everything, but I think this is one piece of China Matters wisdom you can take to the bank. UN military action against Syria is off the table, forever.
Getting Beijing to support Article 41 action against Syria would require not just Chinese enthusiasm for truth, justice, and goodness in the matter of Hariri’s assassination. It would require some major geopolitical benefit to compensate for the destabilization of an anti-US, pro-Chinese regime. I don’t see that happening either.
Of course, blocking enforcement actions by the Security Council isn’t the end of the story.
I think the United States, Russia, and China—and Syria and Lebanon and France and the UK and Germany—all understand that the Security Council resolution’s main utility is to provide legal and diplomatic cover for unilateral US/”coalition of the willing” actions against Syria if and when the tribunal stalls and the Security Council waffles.
If America and its allies decide to impose a Proliferation Security Initiative-type economic blockade against Syria (presumably with greater success than the disastrous North Korean blockade, which failed embarrassingly without regional support beyond Japan and against the active opposition of South Korea, China, and Russia), there’s not much the Chinese can do about it.
But the Chinese won’t do anything.
Maybe they don’t need to.
Events inside Lebanon may overtake the anti-Syria campaign.
To my mind, the subtext for the Hariri tribunal is “The West needs a win in the Middle East”, especially to assert continued Western prestige and influence after the Iraq and Iran debacles.
The Bush administration yearns for the creation of a strongly pro-Western Lebanese state, an objective which was partially accomplished by the Cedar Revolution. It also yearns for the destruction of Asad’s regime in Syria, a seemingly attainable goal that has been frustrated by US mis-steps in Iraq and Asad’s craftiness.
The Hariri tribunal, with its broad mandate, its Section VII authority, and its renewable three-year term, seems to offer the promise of productive months of legal, diplomatic, and economic isolation and harassment of Asad’s regime.
The theory is that putting Syria on the defensive will strengthen the pro-Western forces in Lebanon.
But perhaps just the opposite will occur.
The March 14 coalition has created an advantage for itself by obtaining UN backing for its position. But that’s a step away from grudging coexistence with Hizbullah and pro-Syrian forces, let alone reconciliation.
To my mind, the Hariri tribune represents an escalation of a domestic political conflict that will further polarize the factions inside Lebanon.
That’s not good, because the only way that Lebanon’s rickety and illogical political structure can survive is if the various confessional and political factions agree to co-exist and make things work.
Lebanon’s political power-sharing is based on having a Christian Maronite President (Emile Lahoud, strongly pro-Syrian; go figure), a Sunni Prime Minister (Siniora, rich, secular Hariri associate), and a Shi’ite Speaker of Parliament (Nabih Berri, Hizbullah sympathizer whose refusal to convene parliament to debate a Hariri tribunal impelled Soniora to petition the UN to establish it unilaterally).
When one group, like the March 14 coalition of pro-Western forces, decides to upset the political balance, much craziness can quickly ensue.
The March 14 coalition apparently believes it holds enough cards to maintain its political ascendancy. But demographics seem to be against them.
Seats in the Lebanese parliament (the bunch that Berri refused to convene) are apportioned to the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war with a power-sharing arrangement between Christians and Muslims.
What kind of arrangement?
The Agreement says:
G. Abolition of Political Secterianism (sic): Abolishing political secterianism is a fundamental national objective. To achieve it, it is required that efforts be made in accordance with a phased plan. The Chamber of Deputies elected on the basis of equal sharing by Christians and Muslims...
So the Lebanese parliament has 64 Christian deputies and 64 Muslim ones (that was an improvement over the previous arrangement--a legacy of French colonialism--in which Christians held the majority. That's why the civil war ended).
There’s only one problem with that.
Lebanon’s government got out of the population census business to avoid awkward questions, but...
...a private researcher crunched the numbers for Lebanese birth records and, as translated on the Middle East website Voices on the Wind, concluded:
Lebanon's population is 64.29% Muslim and 35.33% Christian.
Ouch. That means Christians should only have 46 seats instead of 64.
Guess Berri would be much more willing to convene that kind of parliament.
And he certainly has some grounds for regarding the current parliament as a political tool of a minority, rather than a truly representative body.
But there’s worse news:
The more telling statistic in Dweihy's report is that among those under the age of 20 , the Christians form only 23.31% compared to a whopping 76.59% for the Muslims.
Demographics—and not the undeniable Syrian influence and intimidation in Lebanese politics—is the biggest threat to the pro-Western coalition.
And there’s even worse news:
The Taif Agreement consensus—the basis for the various factions ignoring Lebanon’s demographic reality—is breaking down.
Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, targeted Hizbullah and also destroyed beaucoup non-Hizbullah assets in order to try to convince Sunnis and Christians to blame Hizbullah for their misfortune (which they did) and turn on Hizbullah and destroy or marginalize it (which they didn’t, perhaps because of nationalistic qualms or because Israel made such a hash out of the war that the prospects for defeating Hizbullah with or without Israeli help were non-existent).
There are rumblings that Israel and the United States, having learned from their (numerous) 2006 mistakes, are going to try for a do-over war this summer, perhaps with support from the March 14 coalition this time around.
Hizbullah and the Shia are now questioning the viability of the Taif Agreement (or as a Hizbullah member of the Lebanese cabinet stated during the 2006 Israel attack, “the accord is no longer a document of national agreement”), on the understandable grounds that, if Hizbullah is going to be the target of an attack by the state of Israel, it deserves to have at least equal representation in the Lebanese government that may determine its fate.
Which makes the existing Taif Agreement an implement of sectarianism, rather than the solution it was meant to be.
Muslims will be demanding—and getting—a bigger share of the parliamentary pie. The only question is when.
The United States and the May 14 coalition are staking their political and diplomatic fortunes on propping up the Taif system (UN involvement in the Hariri matter, including the current unilateral tribunal, are justified by the de-Syrianization that was an element to the Taif Agreement) despite the demographic tidal wave bearing down on it.
By increasing the polarization within Lebanese society, they may be unwittingly accelerating the collapse of the Taif system—with its enforced supremacy of Christians and prosperous Sunni and Druze—instead of forestalling it.
And if another US-backed Israeli attack on Hizbullah occurs this summer, the collapse of Taif and a existential political crisis inside Lebanon—rather than the destruction of Hizbullah and Lebanese Shi’ites as a Lebanese political force or the destabilization of Syria—would seem to be pre-ordained.
With this oncoming train wreck inside Lebanon, maybe all China and Syria need to do is try to stay out of the way.