There are millions of Christians in Syria, who probably have the Russians and Chinese to thank that they may live there a little longer. The Security Council vetoes, a fortnight ago, on a resolution calling upon Syria's dictator to step down, and supporting an Arab-sponsored plan to "end the violence," put paid to any immediate prospect of western intervention.
The outrage expressed by Hillary Clinton, William Hague, and other western foreign ministers, probably concealed a little relief, for the vetoes provided the excuse they needed to avoid the issue, while continuing to posture about "humanitarianism" and "democracy."
Let me be clear: I carry no brief for Putin's Russia, or the PRC, let alone the Assad family's monstrous regime in Damascus. The obvious needs restating from time to time: that many, perhaps most of the world's governments are in the hands of evil tyrants (if gentle reader will forgive the pleonasm). Thus it often happens that we must appear to support one evil, in order to obviate a worse. This necessarily involves taking heat from utopian slogan-chanters.
That the Russians have ulterior motives, in supporting Bashar al-Assad, could almost go without saying. They have a naval base at Tartus: an interesting relic of the Soviet evil empire. It was their last supply and maintenance facility in the Mediterranean. Over the last few years, this port has been dredged, renovated, and expanded to accommodate nuclear-armed warships, as Vladimir Putin revives Russia's old imperial dreams. He inherited the Soviet special relationship with the Assad family, and Syria remains a major customer for Russian military hardware, too.
China's covering veto was almost certainly a cynical quid-pro-quo, for Russian energy supplies.
Nor does the horrific violence in Syria please anyone who is sane.
Though here, it is important to grasp that we are getting the same stilted information that comes with all "Arab Spring" reporting. Media both East and West, for different reasons, have taken a partisan position, and assigned white and black hats to the respective contestants for power. The opposition to Assad is presented as if it were a unified "resistance movement," of an "oppressed people."
The truth is we do not know much about what is happening inside Syria - just as we knew and know little about Libya, where, now that Gadhafi is dead, "the show is over" for the western audience. Journalists who (courageously) enter Syria are seldom in a position to check the hearsay they must forward as breaking news to deadline. As an old editor, it distresses me to see things as specific as body counts reported, from places where there are no disinterested observers.
It should also be remembered that all governments, even the most angelic, try to maintain order. When rebels seize bastions in Homs or elsewhere, overpowering local authorities, of course the state's soldiers will go in. To present the Syrian regime's defensive efforts, as if it were shelling for the sheer gratuitous pleasure of demolishing old towns, is to overstate the case for the opposition.
We have received little hints that indeed, al-Qaeda and other terrorist Islamists are engaged in that opposition. The very existence of a "Free Syrian Army," in support of a "Syrian National Council" suggests the violence is not confined to one side; and many of the victims of this violence are likely to be (as in Libya, again) unarmed people loyal to the regime, who become targets for vengeance when the regime's soldiers are out of reach.
No reliable census has been conducted, or even attempted in Syria, since the days of the French mandate; all demographic reports are crude estimates. Perhaps three-infive of a population above 20 million are Arab Sunni Muslims. Almost all the rest have some interest in the preservation of the Assad family's rule - not for any love of the regime, but because they can see the alternative.
Assad's extended family and inner core are Alawites - a Shia Islamic sect, long associated with the Mediterranean port of Latakia and its environs. They have a reputation as fierce fighters, going back a thousand years, through which they have resisted many attempts at forcible conversion to Sunni Islam. The links they forged with Syriac Christians (a sizable community going back 2,000 years), Armenian Christians, the Druze, the Kurds, Syrian Turkmen, and others, bespeaks a remarkable (if seldom edifying) story of survival.
Christians were as common in Syria as in Egypt, before their numbers were immensely swelled by refugees from Iraq - well over a million fleeing up the Euphrates River valley, from anti-Christian persecution by Iraq's Islamists. By now, there could be more than four million Christians within Syria's borders.
When the Assad regime falls, it will be open season on them, on the Alawites, and all the other minorities. Granted, Assad is a monster who has earned an ugly fate. But at what expense should we indulge the fleeting satisfaction of deposing him?
David Warren's columns appear Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.