"Chess Is the Way We Establish Mastery Over the West"

These words, uttered by a Soviet General during the Cold War, serve to remind us, in our frustration over the veto on Syria in the United Nations last week, that the Russians are really pretty good at checkmating us. They have so far effectively blocked any action that would remove the Alawite minority dictatorship and usher into power a new, democratic regime in Damascus.

We tend to underestimate the Russians, all the while calling ourselves the sole superpower. We sometimes tend to forget that Russia is an adversary -- helpful at times -- but basically an adversary. We also tend to forget that historically, Russia has no tradition of democracy. It is easier for the Russians than for the West to support a flouting of the wishes of the overwhelming Sunni majority in Syria -- some 75 percent of the population. (It must be admitted, however, that the U.S. record in the region prior to the fall of Hosni Mubarak left much to be desired.)

Why are the Russians doing this? For one thing, to stick a thumb in the eye of the West, and in particular the United States. Their rationalization is that they don't want to repeat the experience of Libya, when the West (and some Arabs) went beyond the UN mandate in order to overthrow Gaddafi. But who in sincerity would have gainsaid the removal of that ubuesque dictator?

Clearly, by the nature of their regimes, neither the Russians nor the Chinese would be expected to countenance the idea of a popular uprising to overthrow a dictatorship. Together China and Russia have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which can be described as a grouping of counter-revolutionary regimes, the leading members of which are bent on checkmating the West where possible. Iran, another like-minded autocratic power, is an observer member of the Organization.

*** Americans who have lived in or have been stationed in Syria will tell you almost to a person that Bashar al-Assad's regime is doomed. For others of us, this is hard to understand, since the regime's side has the vast advantage in weaponry. But if Bashar's fall does come to pass, the Russians will find themselves on the wrong side of history as far as the Arab world -- which is 85 percent Sunni -- is concerned. On 23 July, the Arab League, a largely Sunni grouping as it does not include Shiite Iran, offered Bashar and his family a safe exit from Syria.