Russia won’t back the U.S. and its Arab allies in a United Nations resolution to oust Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as it seeks to defend its most important lever in the Middle East, said researchers from Moscow to London.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead a diplomatic push in the UN Security Council today to sanction Syria, which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union and is a buyer of Russian weapons. Russia is willing to use its Security Council veto to block the resolution, which calls on Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, a senior foreign ministry official said today.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising, according to the UN. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to return to the presidency in March elections and last week accused the U.S. of needing “vassals” rather than allies. He opposed President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to refrain from vetoing the UN resolution that paved the way for military action in Libya.
“The Russians aren’t likely to back down, even if it’s going to get very uncomfortable for them to continue backing Syria,” said Thomas Gomart, director of the Russian Center at the French Institute of Foreign Relation in Paris. “If they surrender on this issue, their whole parade in the Middle East would crumble.”
‘Not a Friend’
Failure to secure UN approval for the departure of Assad may bolster his regime, prolonging a standoff as the U.S. and Europe step up sanctions to pressure Syrian ally Iran to give up its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Russia argues that the UN-sanctioned bombing of Libya by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was abused to bring about regime change and that the U.S. and western European governments are trying to repeat that scenario in Syria.
“We are not a friend, we are not an ally of President Assad,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. television today in Sydney. “We never said President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis. What we did say is it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide how to run the country.”
The West is putting pressure on Syria because the country refuses to break off its alliance with Iran and not for repressing the opposition, Russian Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev said Jan. 12.
“Russia appears concerned about heightened instability in the area at large, the prospect of further empowering Islamists, and the West’s typically cavalier attempts to push its agenda under the guise of noble moral values,” Peter Harling, director for Egypt, Syria and Lebanon at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said in e-mailed comments on Jan. 29.
The Syrian leader’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled his country for three decades until his death in 2000, was a close ally of the Soviet Union. Russia maintains a servicing point for naval vessels in the Syrian port of Tartous, where about 600 Defense Ministry staff are stationed, according to Izvestia newspaper, giving it access to the Mediterranean.
This month, three Russian warships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier, visited Tartous in what a former head of the Russian navy said was a show of force aimed at preventing NATO military involvement in Syria.
Russia dismissed U.S. criticism after a ship delivered Russian ammunition to Syria this month. It also signed a $550 million deal to sell 26 Yak-130 jet trainer aircraft to the country, according to the Kommersant newspaper.
Prior to the latest deal, Russia had contracts with Syria worth at least $3 billion, including Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsir short-range air-defense systems, according to Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.
“The Russian behavior has taken all Western countries by surprise,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It’s not so much that the Russians have objected to Western policy in Syria but the length to which they have gone to support the Syrian regime, especially deliveries of weapons and the presence of Russian naval ships in Syrian ports.”
A Russian veto, repeating its action in October when it teamed up with China to stop a European-drafted resolution that sought to censure Assad, would leave Western and Arab policy toward Syria in a “quandary,” said Eyal.
A spat with the west may also boost Putin’s popularity, said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
“Russia can’t stop Western intervention in Syria but it will do everything to ensure it is illegitimate under international law,” Lukyanov said in a phone interview yesterday. “For Putin, this is a key moment ahead of the presidential elections.”
The Arab League suspended its observer mission in Syria due to an increase in violence and a “grave deterioration of the situation,” Egypt’s Middle East News Agency reported on Jan. 28, citing a statement from the group’s Secretary-General, Nabil El-Arabi.
Blow for Russia
The head of the monitoring mission, Mohammed al-Dabi, said the number of casualties had been exaggerated by the media, according to a 30-page report presented last week in Cairo to the Arab League that presents the mission’s findings in a Dec. 28-Jan. 18 visit.
The disbandment of the mission is a blow for Russia, which had repeatedly cited the study as evidence that reports of violence by security forces had been overblown. Russia had insisted on inclusion of the document, translated from Arabic, as part of the Arab League’s presentation today to the Security Council.
Without a UN mandate, Western powers would be reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, and the Arab League wouldn’t have the stomach to fight with one of its members, said Eyal at the Royal United Services Institute. Qatar this month suggested sending Arab troops to Syria to halt the violence.
Syria’s opposition, which didn’t respond to an invitation from Russia to attend talks in Moscow with Assad representatives, showed frustration at the Russian stance.
“Russia holds the keys to change,” Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, said last week. “If Russia withdrew its support tomorrow, the regime would fall in a matter of weeks. It’s the only support it has left besides Iran.”