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Why Russia is willing to sell arms to Syria

Russia, which has weapons contracts with Syria worth $5 billion, is increasingly resisting international pressure to punish its ally. Yesterday it did not deny a report of a recent arms shipment.

By Correspondent / January 19, 2012

Anti-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans and flash the victory sign as they march during a demonstration at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border, Tuesday. Syria's powerful ally Russia said Wednesday it would block any attempt by the West to secure UN support for the use of force against the regime in Damascus, which is under intense international pressure to end its deadly crackdown on dissent.

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Moscow

Russia is digging in its heels against international action that would punish Syria's regime for its brutal crackdown on a popular uprising that has moved into its 11th month.

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Not only will Russia veto any sanctions put before the United Nations Security Council, where it is one of five veto-wielding members, it also looks set to continue supplying billions of dollars worth of Russian arms that Syria has contracted to buy. And it will not halt friendly Russian gestures toward the regime of Bashar al-Assad, such as this month's visit of Russia's only operational aircraft carrier to the Syrian port of Tartous.

As the death toll for Syria's popular uprising has risen to more than 5,000 in recent months, international leaders have called for more punitive sanctions against the Assad regime. But Russia's opposition to such measures has toughened in part due to increasing suspicions of Western intentions, and in part due to growing fears that Russia could lose its oldest and most important Middle Eastern ally through Western-sponsored regime change in Syria.

Some analysts add that Russia's own bubbling political instability has sharpened the Kremlin's traditional resistance to any precedents that seem to mandate outside interference in a sovereign country's internal affairs.

"Russian leaders view Syria as our major ally in the Middle East, with whom we have good political, military, and economic ties," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. Mr. Golts suggests that with Vladimir Putin almost certain to return as president in March, foreign policy experiments involving greater cooperation with the West that occurred under President Dmitry Medvedev are probably a thing of the past.

"Putin has a real paranoia about colored revolutions. He reads such [pro-democracy rebellions] as a result of Western conspiracies," he says. "The attitude is, we're not going to be fooled any more."

In his annual press conference Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rebuffed concerns about a reported delivery of Russian ammunition for Syria's armed forces this month by saying: "We don't consider it necessary to explain or justify ourselves, as we are not violating any international agreements or any [UN] Security Council resolutions."

UN sanctions would cost Russia $5 billion in arms sales

Russia's official arms export corporation, Rosoboronexport, declined to detail the extent of weapons contracts with Syria today. Its press secretary, Vyacheslav Davidenko, merely echoed Mr. Lavrov by insisting that "Russia will do nothing in violation of UN sanctions. If there aren't any, then we are free to supply any goods or services," to Syria, he says.

But according to the independent Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT) in Moscow, Syria is Russia's seventh-largest customer in a global market that yielded almost $8 billion for Rosoboronexport in 2009. Sales to Syria over the past decade have amounted to about 10 percent of Russia's total weapons exports.

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