Russia vows to block West over Syria

SYRIA’S powerful allies in Russia are vowing to block any Western attempts to intervene militarily in Syria as Damascus fights off an increasingly chaotic 10-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

The support came as Assad was showing fresh confidence that he can ride out the uprising with the help of a small – but influential – set of friends in Russia, China and Iran.

Iran also gave Syria another boost yesterday. According to Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Brig Gen Qasem Soleimani, said Assad’s government enjoys public support and won’t collapse.

Assad, a 46-year-old authoritarian leader who inherited power from his father in 2000, has made two public appearances last week, where he vowed to strike back with an “iron hand” against the “conspiracy” behind the uprising. Assad has rarely turned up in public during the uprising and his appearances showed he was still firmly in charge.
But protesters show no sign of retreat despite the brutal military crackdown that the UN says has killed more than 5400 people since March. And the uprising is turning increasingly militarised as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against the regime.

The comments by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were one of Moscow’s strongest statements of support yet for Assad. As one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia can veto any council resolution that would authorise military intervention in Syria.

“If some intend to use force at all cost … we can hardly prevent that from happening,” Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won’t get any authorisation from the UN Security Council.”

Lavrov said his country’s draft of a UN Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, which was circulated at the UN on Monday, aimed to make it explicitly clear that nothing could justify foreign military interference. However, Western diplomats said the draft fell short of their demand for strong condemnation of Assad’s crackdown on civilians.

Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times when the country was led by the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Nevertheless, Russian officials last northern autumn hosted prominent Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow in a bid to sponsor talks.

Lavrov’s comments made clear that Russia’s position on intervention in Syria has not changed.

“Russia has a number of interests which would be protected by ensuring that there is no external interference in domestic developments in the country,” said Anthony Skinner, associate director at Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company. Russia sells weapons to Syria and the country’s Tartous port gives the Russians a foothold in the Levant region.

But Skinner said the Russian support is not grounds for Assad to feel more secure in his position.

“If you look at the overall longer-term dynamic, it’s not something that he should draw any confidence from,” he said. “As we have seen with autocrats throughout the region, they at times live in an alternative reality and they have to project an image of strength, confidence and power,” he said.

As diplomats debated, opposition activists said Syrian troops shelled the mountain resort town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, which has come under the control of army defectors. They said living conditions were deteriorating there after six days of a military siege.

There have been several other instances when the opposition or defectors have gained control of a town or city, but ultimately the Syrian military recaptured them.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Zabadani was hit with heavy machine gun fire early on Wednesday.

A resident and activist in Zabadani described the town as a “war zone”. He said dozens of anti-government army defectors are deployed at the entrances to prevent any attempt by forces loyal to Assad to storm the area.

The man, who identified himself only as Fares for fear of government reprisal, told The Associated Press by phone that the town was shelled with mortars shortly before noon on Wednesday. He added that two security buildings inside Zabadani are still under government control but there have not been any clashes with the forces there.

Fares said food is running out and fuel for heating is very scarce in Zabadani, where it snowed earlier this week.

The anti-Assad revolt, which began as a peaceful uprising by mostly civilian, unarmed protesters has turned increasingly militarised in recent months with growing numbers of army defectors who clash with troops.

The Observatory said there were also clashes between defectors and regular troops in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey. It added that security forces shot dead a civilian in the province. At least 10 civilians and several defectors were killed in fighting in Idlib and shooting in the central city of Homs, according to activists.