NATO and three alliance members said there are no plans for military intervention in Syria after Russia said it has information about preparations for a no-fly zone over the country.
Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and some Persian Gulf countries are considering a repeat of the campaign in Libya, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council, told Interfax in comments confirmed by his office. Turkey, a NATO member, may play a key role and is working with the U.S. on a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels, he said.
There is “no discussion of a NATO role with respect to Syria,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said by phone from Brussels today. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal dismissed the Russian comments as “speculation” that has appeared before in the international media. The U.K. and France also denied any such plans.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria should end after failing to deter the government’s 10-month campaign of violence against dissidents. She spoke after meeting Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al Thani a day after President Barack Obama held talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal at the White House.
“We are receiving information that NATO members and some Persian Gulf states, working under the ‘Libyan scenario,’ intend to move from indirect intervention in Syria to direct military intervention,” said Patrushev, who used to head the country’s intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service.
There is “no question” of military intervention in Syria, the U.K. Foreign Office in London said in an e-mailed comment today. “The situation in Syria is very different to the situation in Libya. We do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to foreign policy.”
The military option is “not on the agenda,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said by e-mail.
Russia, which has Soviet-era ties with Syria, argues that United Nations-sanctioned bombing of Libya by NATO to protect civilians was used to bring about regime change and that Western governments are trying to repeat that scenario in Syria.
The West is putting pressure on Syria because the country refuses to break off its alliance with Iran and not for repressing the opposition, said Patrushev, who served with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Soviet-era KGB.
“This time, it won’t be France, the U.K. and Italy that will provide the main strike forces, but perhaps neighboring Turkey, which was until recently on good terms with Syria and is a rival of Iran with immense ambitions,” Patrushev said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected calls for his resignation on Jan. 10, accusing “foreign conspiracies” of aiming to divide his country. Unrest in Syria since March 2011 has claimed more than 5,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
At least seven people were killed today in the eastern town of Deir al-Zour by Syrian security forces, where an armored vehicle opened fire on protesters, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is opposed to Assad’s rule, said in an e-mailed statement. Four others died in the northern province of Idlib, while another two were killed in the restive central city of Homs, the organization said.
The Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria on Nov. 27. Russia and China have blocked efforts by the U.S. and the European Union for the UN Security Council to condemn the crackdown.
Russia, which has a naval base in Syria and sells weapons to the Middle Eastern country, is mainly concerned that Islamic radicals may come to power, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East analyst at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
“Our fear is that Syria could collapse and extremist Islamic forces will seize control that no one will be pleased about,” Zvyagelskaya said in a phone interview today. “This could destabilize the entire region.”
While Russia would block any effort to seek UN approval for a no-fly zone in Syria thanks to its veto-wielding power as a permanent member of the Security Council, Western nations and their allies may form a coalition without UN backing like they did for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, she said.
“There are scenarios which different countries are looking at,” Zvyagelskaya said. “We have seen before what a no-fly zone means, it will be used to overthrow the regime.”
Defectors from Assad’s army who have set up an opposition force named the Free Syrian Army called at the end of last year for a no-fly zone and two buffer areas with international backing as they seek to topple the Syrian government.
The group wants a buffer zone in the north, on the Turkish-Syrian border, and another in the south near the border with Jordan to help them bring the fight closer to Assad, Riad al As’ad, a former Syrian colonel who leads the Free Syrian Army, said in a phone interview from Turkey on Nov. 18.
Russia may have obtained intelligence about Western military plans in Syria or may be sending a signal that it will actively oppose any such efforts, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
“After the Libyan experience, Russia will do everything to stop this scenario from happening,” he said in a phone interview. “Syria is much more important than Libya from Russia’s point of view.”