Bloomberg News

Russia Defends Top Mideast Ally in Veto of UN Vote on Syria

October 05, 2011

(Updates with impact of unrest on economy in 12th paragraph, army colonel in 15th.)

Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Russia, which sells weapons to Syria and maintains a naval base there, joined China in vetoing a European-drafted United Nations resolution that sought to stop the Syrian regime’s deadly seven-month crackdown against dissenters.

Both countries, two of five veto-wielding members in the Security Council, blocked the measure that had the support of nine nations in the 15-member body. Lebanon, India, Brazil and South Africa abstained.

The dual block is a blow to U.S. and European diplomacy, after the draft resolution underwent many changes until the last minute in an effort to persuade Russia, which counts Syria as its top ally in the Middle East, to abstain from the vote. Human Rights Watch yesterday called the outcome “a disgrace.”

“The U.S. is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said after the vote. She called Russia’s veto a “slap in the face.”

Rice walked out of the chamber after Syrian Ambassador Ja’afari Bashar Ja’afari accused the U.S. of “partaking in genocide” by supporting Israel at the UN.

Russia and China have used their vetoes together on three previous occasions, including votes to block measures against Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

Libya Criticism

After abstaining in a March vote that authorized NATO-led military action in Libya, Russia has repeatedly criticized the U.S. and European nations for overstepping the mandate to protect Libyan civilians and seeking to topple Muammar Qaddafi instead. Russia has warned against any similar effort to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The situation in Syria cannot be considered in the council apart from the Libyan experience,” Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said. Events in North Africa “can only alarm us.”

Rice called the Libya comparison a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

The softened draft called for measures within 30 days if Assad didn’t change course. The resolution also urged “all sides to reject violence and extremism,” acquiescing to demands by nations such as India that also wanted anti-government protesters to be rebuked. Churkin yesterday labeled the Syrian opposition as “terrorists.”

Civilian Toll

More than 3,600 civilians have died since protests began in March, according to Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. About 30,000 people have been detained and 13,000 are still being held, he said.

The unrest will slow economic growth to about 1 percent this year from 5.5 percent in 2010, Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in a Sept. 7 interview. Syria has spent $2 billion defending its currency since the start of the uprising, and has about $18 billion in foreign-currency reserves, Adib Mayaleh, governor of the central bank, said on Aug. 26.

Syria’s government reversed a decision last month to suspend imports that was aimed at shielding reserves, state television reported yesterday.

Opposition groups this month set up the Syrian National Council, following the example of the umbrella group established by rebels in Libya that is now running the country.

Turkish Army Exercises

Riad al As’ad, a Syrian colonel who fled to Turkey after starting the Free Syria Army, called on opposition groups to unite and accused Syrian leaders of stirring up sectarian strife, in an interview with Turkey’s state-run news agency Anatolia yesterday.

“We cannot remain indifferent any longer to the developments in Syria,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters yesterday in South Africa, where he is on a state visit. Turkey’s army will stage nine days of exercises in Hatay, the border province where thousands of Syrian refugees are staying, the General Staff said yesterday.

Russia’s close economic and military ties with the Assad regime may account in part for the veto. Syria allowed Russia to build a Russian naval base on the Syrian coast that gives it a presence in the Mediterranean Sea. The port of Tartous is the only Russian base outside the former Soviet republics. Russia also has weapons contracts with Syria worth at least $3 billion, according to the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

Russia’s current stance also reflects how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who plans to return to the Kremlin in May as president, rates Assad’s chances of clinging to power.

“The Russians are also aware of realpolitik and won’t back Assad if they’re convinced he’s going to fall,’” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “At the moment they’re very confident that he’s going stay in power.”

--With assistance from Henry Meyer in Moscow, Bill Varner at the United Nations, Franz Wild in Johannesburg, Emre Peker in Ankara. Editors: Robin Meszoly, Ben Holland, Louis Meixler.

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at the United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net; Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at mderhally@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net; Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.


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