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Fear of opposition movement fuels Russian support of Syria, experts say

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times –

MOSCOW — Russia’s increasingly vigorous support of Syria’s beleaguered government cannot solely be explained by an earnest desire to help its long-time partner and biggest importer of conventional weapons in the Middle East, experts in Moscow say.

The Kremlin’s stance, they say, also reflects a politically inspired eagerness to confront the West and its fears of the fast-growing internal opposition movement in the wake of last December’s parliamentary vote, which was marred by accusations of fraud and ballot stuffing.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a return to the presidency in a March election, “is convinced that any popular protest in any part of the world and especially in the Middle East and Russia is inspired by the U.S. White House and sponsored by the State Department,” said Moscow political and defense analyst Alexander Golts.

“The closer to the March election the more evidence the Kremlin will produce to indicate the U.S. involvement and is becoming a key point on the agenda in Putin’s presidential campaign,” Golts, the deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, a liberal online publication, added.

In the last two weeks, a flotilla of Russian warships led by the heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus and a Russian-managed vessel allegedly unloaded tons of ammunition.

Last October, Russia and China blocked a U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria and earlier this week proposed its own draft resolution in which “nothing can be interpreted to allow the use of force,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow this week.

The White House has grown increasingly wary of the Kremlin’s tough stance defending the Syrian government, which stands accused of killing thousands of anti-government protesters during largely peaceful street rallies. Susan Rice, the American envoy to the U.N., said in Geneva on Tuesday that the U.S. has “very grave concerns about arms flows into Syria from any source,” and lashed out at Russia for opposing sanctions and an arms embargo against Syria which she said were “overdue.”

The Kremlin immediately responded by slamming U.S. and European sanctions against Damascus and saying that Russia has no need to apologize for its weapons deliveries.

“We don’t consider it necessary to explain and justify ourselves in connection with a Russian vessel unloading at a Syrian port as Russia (that) doesn’t violate any international agreements and U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Lavrov said Wednesday. “Our country trades with Syria in only what is not banned by international law.”

Syria has had strong political and military ties to Russia for decades. In 1980, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed with Syria’s then-ruler Hafez Assad a friendship and assistance treaty. Since then, 90 percent of Syria’s weaponry has come from Moscow, including, tanks, missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and firearms.

“From a political standpoint Russia has articulated a firm position by all means not to allow the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria as the Kremlin will block any U.N. decision in that direction,” Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the National Defense monthly magazine, said Friday. “Russia is ready to do anything short of direct military involvement in the conflict.”

Last month, Putin directly accused the State Department of meddling in Russian affairs and inciting riots in Moscow.

“They will be locking the United States in a fight over Syria and the anti-ballistic defense in Europe only to prevent it from alleged involvement in the Russian domestic affairs on the eve of the presidential vote,” Golts said on Friday.

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