Russia, Angry About Libya, Won’t Support Resolution on Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | May 19, 2011 | 4:42am EDT

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on May 10, 2010. (Photo: Sergey Guneev/ Presidential Press and Information Office)

( – Russia will not back a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, President Dmitry Medvedev stated Wednesday, a stance that underscores Moscow’s continuing disapproval of the Western military operation in another traditional Russian ally in the region, Libya.

“I will not back this resolution even if my friends beg me to,” Medvedev told journalists during an unprecedented televised press conference in Moscow.

He tied the comment to criticism of NATO countries for overstepping the mandate contained in a March resolution on Libya. Two months later the conflict between regime forces and rebels remains unresolved, and Russia is openly antagonistic to the NATO intervention, which it suspects has the aim of toppling Muammar Gaddafi.

“It is sad that these resolutions can be manipulated,” Ria Novosti quoted Medvedev as saying during Wednesday’s press conference.

European nations on the Security Council, led by permanent members France and Britain, have been garnering support for a resolution condemning Syria’s deadly crackdown on anti-government protests. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Tuesday expressed confidence that they were close to getting the votes needed.

To pass in the 15-member Council a resolution needs at least nine votes, and no veto from any of the permanent members.

Leery of what they regard as interference in other countries’ internal affairs, Russia and China abstained when the council two months ago passed resolution 1973, authorizing military intervention to protect civilians in Libya.

Since then Russia and China have accused Britain, France and the U.S. of exceeding the resolution’s authority by taking sides in the conflict.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev addresses a news conference outside Moscow on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

They are in no mood to see a similar situation develop in Syria, and at the end of April blocked a European bid to issue a Security Council statement on Syria – a considerably less serious step than a resolution.

Meanwhile, as it did ahead of the eventual passage of resolution 1973, the Obama administration is holding off publicly supporting the European resolution, focusing instead on other steps such as the imposition of sanctions against Syrian leaders, including, for the first time Wednesday, President Bashar Assad himself.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been outspokenly critical of “outside interference” in the Arab world.

In Baghdad last Tuesday, he told a news conference it was “unacceptable to try to impose from outside some formulas of state and political system in this or that country.” It was also unacceptable, he added, to try to “settle such disputes through the use of brutal force.”

During a visit to Kazakhstan three days later, Lavrov told reporters that the international community must take a “responsible approach” to the situation in the Arab world.

“Efforts to multiply the Libyan experience in other countries and regions are extremely dangerous, whether it is in Yemen, Syria or Bahrain,” he warned.

Also on Friday, Lavrov reaffirmed Russia’s support for Assad, and said the international community should stop interfering in Syria’s affairs.

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Moskovskie Novosti, he said the situation in Syria differed from protest movements elsewhere in the region. He echoed Assad’s claims that the opposition had used force from the outset and was responsible for the deaths of many security force members and civilians.

Human rights groups say up to 1,000 Syrians have been killed since Assad deployed security forces to quell the protests in the middle of March.

Deepening ties, arms sales

While Russia has characterizes its opposition to international intervention in Libya and Syria as a sovereignty issue, Moscow has enjoyed close relations with both Arab countries, stretching back to the Soviet era and deepening in recent years.

Then-Russian President (now prime minister) Vladimir Putin meets with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli on April 16, 2008. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

Gaddafi paid several official visits to Moscow during his four decades in power, most recently in 2008. Then-Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tripoli the same year, agreeing to write off a $4.5 billion Soviet-era debt in exchange for lucrative contracts for Russian companies.

“Russia is our strategic partner, and we cannot compare it with any other country for closeness. That’s obvious,” Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, told the Russian business paper Kommersant later in 2008.

Months later, when Russian warships headed to the Caribbean for exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, they made a port call in Libya en route.

In January 2010 Russia signed an agreement to provide Libya with weaponry worth more than $2 billion, including jets and tanks.

Moscow’s relationship with Syria also goes back decades; the two were strategic allies during the Cold War although the collapse of the Soviet Union saw ties weaken.

That changed in 2005, when Assad visited Moscow, securing a write-off from Putin of the bulk of Syria’s Soviet-era debt in return for Russian weapons contracts. The next five years saw bilateral trade double, reaching $1 billion in 2009.

The Russian naval fleet uses the Syrian port of Tartus, and in 2008 began upgrading Soviet-era facilities there. (The Soviet Union, and then Russia, was responsible for most of Syria’s infrastructure, including oil-producing facilities and industrial plants.)

Last year Medvedev and a large delegation visited Damascus – the first visit by a Russian leader to Syria in almost a century – and agreed to sell Assad fighter planes, surface-to-air missile systems and armored vehicles.

Russia also discussed building a nuclear energy reactor in Syria, prompting concerns from the State Department, which noted that Damascus was under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation over an alleged covert nuclear weapons program.

The probe by the U.N. nuclear watchdog began after Israel in 2007 bombed a remote site in Syria where North Korea is suspected to have been helping the Syrians develop a clandestine nuclear capability.

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