Damage limitation: China and Russia have options in Libya and Syria but time is running out

Chi­na and Rus­sia would do well to take a leaf out of Turkey’s play­book in try­ing to recov­er lost ground with Libyan rebels tak­ing con­trol of their coun­try even though Colonel Moam­mar Qaddafi remains at large.

Turkey like Chi­na and Rus­sia along­side India, Brazil and South Africa ini­tial­ly opposed for­eign mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Libya. But unlike the oth­ers Turkey reversed its posi­tion ear­ly on and became a mem­ber of the Libya Con­tact Group that groups NATO and the Arab League.

It is too late for the five Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers to undo the fact that in con­trast to Turkey they con­tin­ue to oppose the mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion as well as the fact that Mr. Qaddafi’s oppo­nents took up arms against him.

Their posi­tion threat­ens now to haunt them as they brace them­selves for the fact that they may not get a sig­nif­i­cant share of Libya’s post-Qaddafi recon­struc­tion pie. It also con­fronts them with the need to review their poli­cies so that they are not caught in the cold as the Arab revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa threat­ens the grip on pow­er of oth­er auto­crats in the region, first and fore­most embat­tled Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad.

That need not involve a dra­mat­ic U-turn. It would how­ev­er mean being proac­tive rather than reac­tive with the Libyan rebels as well as with Mr. Assad’s oppo­nents. There is noth­ing to stop rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Chi­na and Rus­sia from fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Turk­ish for­eign min­is­ter Ahmet Davu­to­glu who this week became the most senior for­eign offi­cial to vis­it Beng­hazi since the rebels entered Tripoli this week­end.

Bear­ing a gift of $300 mil­lion in grants and loans, Mr. Davu­tuoglu is cer­tain to have ensured that Turkey will rank high on the list of nations to ben­e­fit from Libya’s recon­struc­tion. Mr. Davu­tuoglu told the rebels he want­ed Turkey’s state-owned ener­gy group Turk­ish Petro­le­um Group (TPAO) to resume oil pro­duc­tion and explo­ration in Libya.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Chi­na and Rus­sia as well as from India, Brazil and South Africa may not be greet­ed with the same enthu­si­asm with which Mr. Davu­tuoglu was wel­comed, but the ges­ture of fol­low­ing the exam­ple of the Turk­ish offi­cial would not be lost on the rebels. That is cer­tain to be all the more the case if Mr. Qaddafi makes good on his threat to wage an insur­gency against the rebels as they seek to estab­lish their author­i­ty over the coun­try.

That threat could sig­nif­i­cant­ly com­pli­cate the rebel’s already daunt­ing task of estab­lish law and order, ensur­ing the revival of basic ser­vices, kick start­ing the econ­o­my and lead­ing a tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy. In those cir­cum­stances, the rebels will more than ever need all the assis­tance they can get.

If the rebels and NATO pow­ers look at what went wrong in Iraq to save Libya the fate of a cycle of vicious vio­lence and frac­ti­cide, Mr. Qaddafi may well have seen Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hussein’s cam­paign of ter­ror as an exam­ple to emu­late. Like Mr. Hus­sein, Mr. Qaddafi appears to have escaped from his besieged head­quar­ters through vast under­ground com­plex sur­ren­der­ing Tripoli in the hope of being able to wage a pro­longed and bloody insur­gency.

The win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty for Chi­na, Rus­sia and the oth­ers to try and lim­it the dam­age they suf­fered by fail­ing to sup­port the rebels is how­ev­er lim­it­ed. The rebels, act­ing on West­ern advice based on the expe­ri­ence in Iraq, are empha­siz­ing the need to avoid ret­ri­bu­tion, be inclu­sive in giv­ing all ele­ments of Libyan soci­ety a stake in shap­ing their country’s future and ensure the oper­a­tions of med­ical facil­i­ties and com­mu­ni­ca­tions as well as the sup­ply of elec­tric­i­ty, fuel and water. The rebels hope that this will under­mine sup­port for Mr. Qaddafi whose poten­tial insur­gency would lack the kind of covert sup­port Mr. Hus­sein enjoyed from neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

The Libyan rebels are like­ly to get the bridge financ­ing they need from West­ern as well as Arab nations until the bil­lions of dol­lars in frozen over­seas Libyan assets are freed and put at their dis­pos­al. Nonethe­less, this is for the rebels a moment of imme­di­ate need, one that Chi­na and Rus­sia and the oth­ers could help alle­vi­ate. Such a ges­ture would not erase the past but would go some way in repair­ing their tar­nished images.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Chi­na and Rus­sia could qui­et­ly estab­lish rela­tions with Syr­i­an pro­test­ers in a bid to avert a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion if and when Mr. Assad is forced to relin­quish pow­er. The US and Euro­pean push for the adop­tion of UN sanc­tions against Syr­ia offers Chi­na, Rus­sia and the oth­er Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to posi­tion them­selves dif­fer­ent­ly.

To do so, Chi­na and Rus­sia would have to define their inter­ests over the mid­dle rather than the short term and defeat wide­spread con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries in their cap­i­tals that assert that West­ern nations see the Arab revolt as a spring plank for sim­i­lar upris­ings in their own back­yards. That would stand them in good stead in a resource-rich region that stretch­es from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf whose short and medi­um-term future is one that will be marked by pop­u­lar demand for polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic change.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.