What's Behind Russia's Attachment To Syria?

Russia has vowed to veto any United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Syrian leader Bashar Assad. The Russians fear "colored revolutions" and uprisings like the Arab Spring. And Syria is a longtime ally and valued customer for Russian weapons contracts. A Russian aircraft carrier recently docked at the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia's last overseas base outside the former Soviet Union.

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The U.N. Security Council consulted behind closed doors today on next steps to try to end the bloodshed in Syria. A draft resolution now circulating calls on President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy, and that deputy would be part of a national unity government. But Russia objects and vetoed a U.N. resolution on Syria last year.

From Moscow, NPR's Jackie Northam reports on why the Kremlin still backs the Syrian government.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Syria may be increasingly viewed as a pariah state. But Russia sees things differently. Syria is one of its closest allies in the Middle East. For months, Moscow has shown it's willing to stick by President Bashar al-Assad and has vowed to use its veto power if the U.N. tries to impose sanctions or authorizes military intervention in Syria.

Vladimir Sotnikov, with the Center for International Studies here in Moscow, says the Kremlin sees the Syria situation as a repeat of what happened in Libya. He says it believes the U.N. authorization to intervene there led to excessive force and mass civilian casualties.

VLADIMIR SOTNIKOV: Russia understands also very well that any external intervention, which would be as a sort of - it was in Libyan case - could not only aggravate the whole situation in this volatile region of Middle East but also could lead to the situation, then there will be unpredictable consequences.

NORTHAM: But Alexander Golts, a military analyst with the Weekly Journal website, says Russia's leaders are also deeply suspicious of popular uprisings. Golts says Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in particular, simply doesn't accept the right of people to challenge their governments.

ALEXANDER GOLTS: In Mr. Putin's reading, in Mr. Putin's understanding, all what's going on in Middle East now, such as Arab Spring and everything, is the result of Western conspiracy. He has something like paranoia about these colored revolutions.

NORTHAM: Like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Golts says Russia's stand on Syria has a lot to do with Putin himself. The prime minister's foreign policy hardened, he says, after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Golts says that's why Putin has shrugged off criticism of Moscow's support for Syria. That became apparent this month when a Russian ship - reportedly carrying tons of munitions - pulled into the Syrian port of Tartus, Russia's sole military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the U.N., expressed grave concerns about arms flowing into Syria and demanded an explanation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed her concerns.

SERGEI LAVROV: (Through Translator) We don't consider it necessary to explain or justify ourselves as we are not violating any international agreements or any Security Council resolutions. We do trade with Syria, but only what is allowed under international law.

NORTHAM: And there is no U.N. arms embargo against Syria in effect. So, if there are no sanctions against Syria, then Russia says it can sell the country weapons, which it's clearly doing. Earlier this week, the local press reported that Moscow signed a deal to sell Syria about three dozen YAK-130 combat jets.

Military expert Golts says the deal was likely in the works for months.

GOLTS: It's a big deal. The estimation is that it's something like half a billion dollars, which is rather important for Russia. The level of our arms sales is between 8 and $10 billion a year. So it's rather significant.

NORTHAM: Analysts like Golts predict Russia's weapons sales to Syria will likely continue unless an arms embargo or other sanctions are in place.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Moscow.

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