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Russia: Moscow Treads A Fine Line With UN Syria Vote

  • Victor Yasmann --> Rafiq Hariri was killed in February (epa) On 31 October, Russia voted unanimously with the other members of the UN Security Council for a resolution demanding Syria's full cooperation with a UN investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The resolution warns of possible "further action" if it refuses. The resolution was a partial compromise for its sponsors, the United States, Britain, and France.

To have Russia and China on board, the mention of "sanctions" was dropped from the final draft. Still, the language of the resolution is tough enough to leave Damascus under no illusions. Commenting on the resolution, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the outcome of the Security Council session is "proof of the international community's resolve to find out the truth about the killing of the prominent Arab political figure, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri," RIA-Novosti reported on 31 October.

With Syria, Moscow faces a complicated dilemma: how to retain one of its few loyal allies in the Middle East while not antagonizing the United States and other members of the international community.

Not Making Waves

Russia is particularly wary of provoking Israel, which has long expressed irritation at Moscow's sale of arms to Damascus. This irritation was reiterated by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who during a visit last week of his Russian counterpart Lavrov to Jerusalem, said "Syria is already destabilizing the situation in the region and any cooperation with it, particularly weapons sales, could bring more instability.

Those in favor of supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Asad tend to be veterans of the Soviet and Russian political scene -- for instance Arabist and Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Chairman Yevgenii Primakov.

Their motives for supporting Syria are not just nostalgic, but practical. In January, after talks in Moscow between al-Asad and Russian President Vladmir Putin, Russia wrote off $10 billion of Syria's Soviet-era debt. Vladimir Isaev, the deputy director of the Oriental Studies Institute, explained to NTV on 31 October: "We wrote off 70 percent of the debt, that was hampering our relations...[and] signed accords. If these [contracts] materialize, including military-technical cooperation, the volume of deals could reach $5 billion."

Caspian Neighbor

The dilemma Moscow faces with Iran is even more complicated. More than just the two countries' nuclear cooperation, Russia's geopolitical interests are also at stake. The "Ekspert" weekly wrote on 30 October that Moscow, in addition to Western interest in the Caspian's oil reserves, is also interested in Tehran's nascent plans to construct a canal linking the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. That would provide not only a strategic transportation corridor, but also a passage to the Indian Ocean for Russia's Caspian flotilla. On 28 October, Russia launched Iran's first satellite Sinah-1, which allows Tehran to gather intelligence information from the Middle East, including Israel.

Moscow has ardently defended its nuclear cooperation with Iran against the concerns of the United States, the European Union, and Israel. However, international outrage at the statements of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad that "Israel must be wiped off the map" have isolated the Russians further.

While in Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Lavrov said Ahmadinejad's comments were "unacceptable" and that Russia will ask Iran for an explanation, RIA-Novosti reported on 28 October. Shortly afterwards, Iranian diplomats were summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russia continues to defend the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. In an interview with NTV on 30 October, Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov said "I am deeply convinced that Iran has the right to the benefits of nuclear-power engineering." He added that "military nuclear programs are a completely different matter," but that the International Atomic Energy Agency has no evidence suggesting that Iran has any covert weapons programs, or is building infrastructure required for creating nuclear weapons in the future.

Outlying Russia's current position on Iran, Ivanov said that "Iran, first and foremost, is our neighbor and one does not choose one's neighbors," NTV reported. Ivanov noted that both countries are littoral states of the Caspian Sea and highlighted the security threats in the region, including poaching, drug trafficking, and the possibility of smuggling weapons of mass destruction. He also called for the creation of regional armed forces with Iran's participation.