Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin argued on Wednesday that there was a difference between his country and others supplying weapons to the warring factions in Syria. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that whereas arms provided by Arab powers who sympathize with the opposition deepened the civil war, Russia’s underlined “regional stability.”
Churkin denied that Russian anti-aircraft systems bound for Syria are designed to deter foreign intervention in the country. “They are specifically designed to shoot down aircraft,” he said. Which the regime could use if Western powers decided to impose a no-fly zone over Syria as they did in Libya two years ago when rebels there failed to dislodge the regime of Muammar Gaddafi on their own.
Russia has blocked international efforts to influence the conflict in Syria, citing the Libyan intervention as a cautionary tale. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, complained last year that NATO countries had “grossly distorted the mandate granted to them by a UN Security Council resolution […] and launched a fight against the existing power.” Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev similarly argued in November that “not a single state, not a single government should undertake any action directed at the forcible replacement of an acting government in any other country.”
Churkin pointed out on Wednesday that contracts for the sale of advanced Russian weapons to Syria were signed long before the uprising there began in early 2011. His country has made “no secret” about the continued delivery of such weapons, he added.
The diplomat also said he doesn’t believe an arms race will envelop as a result of the European Union’s failure to extend its weapons embargo against Syria on Monday. France and the United Kingdom lobbied for the lifting of sanctions in order to expand their support for the rebels. Russian officials have repeatedly warned Arab and Western powers against supporting what they see as a radical Islamist insurgency.
President Vladimir Putin told RT television in an interview that was broadcast last September: “Today, some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.” He compared the situation to the United States backing mujahideen rebels during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and warned that propping up Muslim extremists in Syria will similarly backfire.
Lavrov added last month that Western efforts to isolate Assad’s regime might wreck the chances of a peaceful resolution to the conflict and help radical Islamists.
“One must understand that the more one bets on the isolation of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a military solution, the more these threats will be felt,” Lavrov told a press conference after meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Istanbul.
The deadliest fighters in the Syrian opposition movement appear to be the more radical ones, including those affiliated with Al Qaeda, the organization that carried out terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
Most Western powers, including the United States, have been reluctant to provide more than “nonlethal” aid to rebel fighters for fear of propping up a jihadist insurgency although most of the weapons delivered by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sunni powers in the Persian Gulf that seek to hasten Assad’s demise because he is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran, have ended up in the hands of religious extremists.
By raising the threat of arming the rebellion, Britain and France hope to coax both Assad and his foes into taking the peace talks that Russia and the United States intend to call in Geneva next month seriously.