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Moscow support for Assad well-calculated

MOSCOW (AP) — By bluntly using its veto power to block a United Nations resolution urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, Russia has shown a willingness to defy the West at a scale rarely seen since the Cold War times.

The price Russia will have to pay in international condemnation of its action clearly doesn’t seem excessive to the Russian leaders. In fact, the Kremlin even may hope to reap some dividends both at home and abroad by coming to Assad’s defense.

With Russia’s 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 longtime ally. Putin already has given his campaign a distinct anti-American flavor, accusing the U.S. 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 U.S. are in a downward spiral amid a host of disputes, and the discord over Syria wouldn’t bring any dramatic change in the overall picture.

Putin has spoken with dismay about NATO’s action in Libya and even accused U.S. special forces of involvement in the killing of Moammar Gadhafi. Moscow’s abstention in the U.N. vote on Libya cleared the path for a NATO military operation there, and Russian officials firmly say they will not allow any Syria-related U.N. resolution to open the door to a replay of the Libyan experience.

Saturday’s veto by Russia and China marked the second time in four months that the two countries used their power to block a U.N. action to end violence in Syria, where more than 5,400 people have been killed since protests against Assad’s regime 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 always have viewed Russia with indifference and, sometimes, open enmity. Moscow has no clout there, so their disapproval is inconsequential.

"Russia’s position will not inflict any more damage to its standing in the Arab world," said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Middle East Institute in Moscow.

Other observers point that Russia’s firm stance against foreign military intervention in Syria may actually be welcomed by the public in some Arab nations that have taken a neutral stance on the crisis.

Alexei Sarabyev, a researcher with the Center 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 Russia’s policy.

"The population of these nations will likely have a positive attitude to Russia’s stance in the Syrian conflict," he said. "And the opinion of the Arab street is extremely important."

Even though Russia held the door open to the NATO action in Libya, Gadhafi’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 realize 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 has 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 has 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 has been Moscow’s top ally in the region since the Cold War, when it was led by the current leader’s father, Hafez Assad. Russia saw Syria as a bulwark against U.S. 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 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 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 the old ally.

In the past few years, Russia has shipped arms to Syria, much to the dismay of Israel and the U.S., but refrained from providing Assad with more powerful weapons he has sought, such as Iskander missiles whose range and precision would allow Syria to hit targets in Israel, and the S-300 air defense missile that would pose a strong threat to any enemy aircraft.

Russia has continued weapon supplies to Damascus, even as Assad unleashed his crackdown on protests, shrugging off Western objections as irrelevant. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said defiantly that Moscow would maintain the flow of weapons to Damascus.

China, although it has better ties with the Mideast than Russia, shared Moscow’s displeasure about the NATO action in Libya.

"China is worried that a situation similar to that in Libya may occur again," said Niu Jun, a professor at Beijing University’s School of International Studies.

Another Chinese expert suggested that short-term anger over the veto will change.

"Those countries supporting the … resolution may not understand China’s decision now, but history will prove that it’s beneficial to peace and development in the world and safeguarding international rules, peace and development in the Middle East," said Liu Jiangyong, vice president of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.


Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Scott McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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