Before he left for Damascus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traded barbs over a tough United Nations resolution on Syria, proposed by the Arab League, that Russia and China vetoed Saturday.
“Certain Western states are trying to obscure the developments with hysterical statements on Russia’s veto of the Syria resolution,” Lavrov said Monday. “To put the Syria resolution to a vote despite our request to wait for Russia’s report after its visit to Damascus is disrespectful.”
Clinton denounced the vetoes as a “travesty.”
“Those countries that refuse to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibly for protecting the brutal regime in Damascus,” Clinton said Sunday at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.
And in an apparent swipe at Russian arms shipments to Syria, Clinton said, “We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children.”
Lavrov will be accompanied by the head of Russian foreign intelligence, Mikhail Fradkov.
Russia maintains that it is not siding with Assad but trying to prevent a foreign intervention that it fears would be bloody and sow chaos in one of the few Middle Eastern countries with which Russia has good relations. Moscow worries about a repeat of what happened in Libya, where it believes Western forces took advantage of a U.N. resolution to conduct a far wider action than promised.
At the same time, a foreign ministry statement said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the mission to Damascus because Russia “firmly intends to seek the swiftest stabilization of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come.”
Syria is an important customer for Russian arms sales and hosts a naval supply base, but analysts agree that alarm in Moscow over popular uprisings is the main driver of Russian policy. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president, sees Western interference behind nearly every mass protest — including in his own country.
But several experts argue that Syria presents another wrinkle: A long-held Russian antipathy toward Saudi Arabia is once again coming to the fore, as Moscow believes the Saudis seek to bolster their Sunni counterparts in Syria.
“The Russian establishment and public opinion don’t buy the picture of a peaceful pro-democracy movement suppressed by dictatorship,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading foreign policy expert, for the Russia Today Web site. “Well-trained and heavily-armed rebel groups have support from the outside, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”