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Why Russia is so opposed to asking Assad to go

Russia is taking a hard line against a UN resolution asking Syrian President Assad to step down, saying the possibility of military intervention must first be ruled out.

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A year ago, Moscow was persuaded to abstain on Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a No Fly Zone over Libya in order to "protect civilian lives," but which Russia now believes was interpreted by Western powers as a license to provide military backing for regime change, ending with the overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

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"Syria is situated not far from our own borders, and nobody can predict how forceful solutions may play out," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee. "It may seem easy to advocate and plan these things from the safety of Washington, but we remember the chaos that was unleashed after the US invaded Iraq. The prospects for similar breakdown in Syria are just as great."

On Tuesday US secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Russia may be making too much out of its fears that the "Libya scenario" might be repeated in Syria. "That is a false analogy," Mrs. Clinton was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying at the UN Security Council meeting.

"Nobody in Moscow takes Western arguments seriously anymore. After all that's happened, we frankly don't think they know what they're doing," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. "What's going on in Syria is a civil war, one that threatens to turn into a massive bloodbath, many times worse than Libya. Does the US have any plans for dealing with this? And what about Russia's interests? Who will defend those? It should be perfectly obvious why Moscow isn't going to enable any more Western-backed adventures in the Middle East."

Russian officials insist they are not backing Assad, despite the fact that Moscow continues to ship arms to Syria, but that they are standing on the principle of sovereignty and the right of nations to work out their own internal difficulties without external interference.

"We have proposed a resolution based on law and noninterference, but we are told that this is unacceptable," says Klimov.

Russia's favored draft resolution would condemn violence on all sides in Syria's increasingly civil-war-like conflict, and urge peaceful dialogue between the rebels and the government. But it would exclude any form of overt outside support for the anti-Assad insurgents.

"Russia's policy is not about asking someone to step down; regime change is not our profession," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday, according to the independent Interfax agency. 

"We are not friends or allies of President Assad. We never said that Assad remaining in power is a precondition for regulating the situation. Our position is different: we have said that the decision should be made by the Syrian people themselves," he added.

Mr. Lavrov also insisted that Russian arms supplies to Syria were not meant to help the regime overcome its domestic opposition.

"We signed some contracts and contracts must be implemented," he added. "We are arming the constitutional government: We don't approve of what it is doing, using force against demonstrators but we're not picking sides, we're implementing our commercial contractual obligations."

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