End Of Arms Embargo Against Syria Angers Russia

Responding to criticism of their arms supplies to Syria, the Russians argue that they are providing defensive weapons to a sovereign government under previously signed contracts, whereas the European Union is proposing to arm non-governmental groups, which, incidentally, include foreign terrorists.

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Russia is reacting sharply to news that the European Union has decided not to extend its arms embargo against Syria. The embargo will now expire at the end of July, and that could open the way for EU members, such as Britain or France, to start sending weapons to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia's foreign minister denounced the decision. He called it illegitimate.

But as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, Russia has been supplying weapons to Assad's regime throughout the more than two-year civil war.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russia supplies weapons to one side in the Syrian civil war, yet it bridles at the possibility that Europeans might provide arms to the other side. Some might say that's a double standard, but it all depends on how you perceive the warring parties. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov argues that Russia is sending arms to the legitimate government of a sovereign country.

SERGEY LAVROV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Whereas the European Union's decision would violate international treaties, he says, by supplying weapons to non-governmental groups.

Russia has always maintained that its military shipments to the Syrian government were just fulfilling contracts that were made before the civil war began.

This is Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine.

IGOR KOROTCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He defends Russia's decision to send Syria the advanced S-300 air defense system, arguing that it can't be used against the rebels since the rebels don't have aircraft. It is, he says, solely for defense against foreign aggression.

It's not clear whether Russia has actually shipped the S-300 yet, but Israel and the United States have strongly objected to the deal. The Russian-made air defense system could make it extremely dangerous for foreign warplanes to enforce a no-fly zone or conduct air strikes in Syria.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told CNN that would be a good thing.

VITALY CHURKIN: To the extent those systems, if deployed in Syria, can deter foreign military intervention, I think it will help focus minds on a political settlement.

FLINTOFF: In other words, if the rebels in Syria don't think they can get foreign air support, they may be a lot more willing to talk peace. Korotchenko brings up another argument that's widely believed in Russia - that if anyone is applying a double standard to Syria, it's the United States and the European Union.

KOROTCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He likens the civil war in Syria to the Islamist insurgency in Mali, saying it's another case where radicals linked to al-Qaida rebelled against a lawful government. The West opposed the Islamists in Mali, Korotchenka says, but is, in effect, supporting them in Syria. If the Syrian rebels believe they'll eventually get heavy weapons from the West, he says, they'll have no incentive to negotiate and the peace process is doomed before it begins.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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