By bluntly using its veto power to block a United Nations resolution urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, Russia showed a willingness to defy the West on a scale rarely seen since Cold War times. The price Russia will pay in international condemnation of its action clearly doesn’t seem excessive to Russian leaders. In fact, the Kremlin even may hope to reap some dividends both at home and abroad by coming to Assad’s defence. With the Russian presidential election just a month away, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seeking to return to the Kremlin, appears eager to stand up to the United States by protecting a long-time ally. Putin already has given his campaign a distinct anti-American flavour, accusing the US of trying to thwart his bid to reclaim the presidency, so bickering with Washington over Syria would give him an extra chance to consolidate his support among nationalists. Russia’s relations with the US are in a downward spiral amidst a host of disputes, and the discord over Syria wouldn’t bring any dramatic change in the overall picture.
Putin spoke with dismay about NATO’s action in Libya, and even accused US Special Forces of involvement in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi. Moscow’s abstention in the UN vote on Libya cleared the path for a NATO military operation there, and Russian officials firmly say they won’t allow any Syria-related UN resolution to open the door to a replay of the Libyan scenario. Saturday’s veto by Russia and China marked the second time in four months that the two countries used their power to block a UN action to end violence in Syria, as protests against Assad killed more than 5,400 people since the unrest began in March. Analysts say Russia seems to have little fear that its intransigence in the Syrian crisis could hurt its interests in the Middle East. The Arab states in the Gulf that spearheaded the Arab League‘s efforts to end violence in Syria have always viewed Russia with indifference and, sometimes, open enmity. Moscow has no clout there, so, their disapproval’s inconsequential.
Yevgeni Satanovsky, president of the independent Middle East Institute in Moscow, said, “Russia’s position won’t inflict any more damage to its standing in the Arab world”. Other observers pointed up that the public in some Arab nations that have taken a neutral stance on the crisis may actually welcome Russia’s firm stance against foreign military intervention in Syria. Aleksei Sarabyev, a researcher with the Centre of Arabic and Islamic studies at Moscow‘s Institute of Eastern Studies, a government-funded think-tank, said the public in such nations as Oman, Yemen, Sudan, and Algeria would take a positive view of Russian policy. He said, “The people in these nations would likely have a positive attitude to Russia’s stance in the Syrian conflict, and the opinion of the Arab street is extremely important”.
Even though Russia held the door open to the NATO action in Libya, Gaddafi’s downfall deprived it of any influence with the new Libyan authorities, who immediately annulled the lucrative weapons and other contracts signed by the dictator. Kremlin strategists obviously realise it’s already too late to try to mend ties with the Syrian opposition, so, maintaining a staunch support for Assad may seem to them the best possible bet. At the same time, Russia hosted Syrian opposition leaders in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to sit down for talks with the government and repeatedly tried to encourage Assad to launch reforms to ease public discontent and refrain from using force against civilians… advice he ignored. A trip to Damascus by the Russian foreign minister and the foreign intelligence chief set for Tuesday appears to be another effort to push Assad to show more flexibility.
Syria was Moscow’s top ally in the region since the Cold War, when the current leader’s father, Hafez Assad, led it. Russia saw Syria as a bulwark against US interests in the region and a key adversary of Israel. Along with Iraq, Syria was a top customer for Soviet weapons. Moscow’s ties with Syria and other Soviet-era allies took a nosedive after the 1991 Soviet collapse, when the economic and political chaos that befell Russia effectively deprived it of any capability and interest in maintaining a global presence. That changed after Putin took the presidency in 2000, and he moved quickly to reclaim the nation’s international clout relying on a flow of petrodollars. After Bashar Assad succeeded his father the same year, Russia agreed to annul the bulk of Syria’s Soviet-era debt in a bid to win back the loyalty of its old ally.
In the past few years, Russia shipped arms to Syria, much to the dismay of Israel and the US, but refrained from providing Assad with the more powerful weapons he has sought, such as mobile Iskander theatre ballistic missiles whose range and precision would allow Syria to hit targets in Israel, and S-300 SAMs, which would pose a strong threat to any enemy aircraft. Russia continued weapon supplies to Damascus, even as Assad unleashed his crackdown on protests, shrugging off Western objections as irrelevant. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Moscow would maintain the flow of weapons to Damascus.
China, although it has better ties with the Middle East than Russia, shared Moscow’s displeasure about the NATO action in Libya. Niu Jun, a professor at Beijing University‘s School of International Studies, said, “China’s worried that a situation similar to that in Libya may occur again”. Another Chinese expert suggested that short-term anger over the veto would change. Liu Jiangyong, vice president of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Beijing‘s Tsinghua University, said, “Those countries supporting the … resolution may not understand China’s decision now, but history will prove that it was beneficial to peace and development in the world, safeguarding international law, peace, and development in the Middle East”.
5 February 2012
As quoted in Yahoo News