Lesson from Turkey mortar strike: Russia still has Syria's back

Some experts thought they saw signs of Russian support for Syria wavering. But now Russia is forcing the UN to water down its condemnation of Syria for its mortar attack on Turkey, suggesting that the bond is still strong.

Local people fill the main street in Akcakale, Turkey, on Thursday. Turkey fired on Syrian targets for a second day Thursday, but said it has no intention of declaring war, despite tensions after deadly shelling from Syria killed five civilians in a Turkish border town.

Even as the Syrian conflict threatens to deteriorate into a regional conflict, the United Nations Security Council is finding it difficult to overcome its months-long deadlock and respond in unison to Syria-Turkey tensions.

Russia on Thursday stopped adoption of a Council statement that would have condemned Syria for its shelling Wednesday of a Turkish border village, saying it wanted a more evenhanded text.

In blocking the draft statement, Russia cited Turkey’s quick retaliation – in the form of artillery strikes at Syrian military installations – for what the government of President Bashar al-Assad said was a mistake. But beyond the specifics of Wednesday’s shelling exchange, Russia’s action suggested Moscow is not wavering in its support of Mr. Assad as some Western officials have recently speculated.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his alarm at “escalating tensions” along the Turkish-Syrian border. Mr. Ban was particularly concerned that “the risks of regional conflict and the threat to international peace and security are also increasing,” his spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said in a statement Thursday.

Indeed, the Council’s efforts to reach agreement on a statement took place as the Turkish parliament voted to authorize further “deterrent” action against Syria and Turkish strikes stretched into a second day.

Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council chambers in New York, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the Syrian conflict “already is – and has for quite some while been – a conflict that has broader ramifications for the security of the region and potentially also for international peace and security.”

That is why, she added, the United States “has argued that this is squarely in the wheelhouse of the Security Council and deserves appropriate and meaningful action.”

For its part, the Russian draft retains a reference to the threat of a spreading conflict, saying the exchange of fire Wednesday “represents a demonstration of the spilling over of the crisis in Syria into neighboring states to an alarming degree.”

But where the earlier, Western-backed draft statement would have condemned Syria for its aggression, Russia proposed a text that would call for “restraint” by both Syrians and Turks. And perhaps most telling, the Russian draft drops a line that referred to Syria’s actions as “violations of international law [that] constitute a serious threat to international peace and security.”

Over the course of the 18-month-long conflict, Russia – backed by China – has vetoed three Security Council resolutions condemning Assad. Russian officials have said they would block any Council action that might pave the way for the kind of Western intervention in Syria that NATO undertook in Libya last year. That NATO campaign began shortly after approval of a resolution condemning former leader Muammar Qaddafi and authorizing further measures to stop his assaults on his own people.

Russia apparently saw the reference to “violations of international law” as a potential foot in the door for more robust action targeting Assad, some UN experts said.

By rushing to Assad’s defense, Russia cast doubt on the thinking among some Western officials that Moscow’s ties to the Syrian regime were beginning to fray. Earlier this week a senior European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said that some of Russia's recent actions, as well as some diplomatic conversations, were suggesting a softening of support for Assad.

Russia’s interest in maintaining its ties to Syria as its strategic foothold in the Middle East is not wavering, the diplomat said, even as Russia begins to contemplate a Syria without Assad.

Moscow’s actions at the UN this week suggested that theory might be more wishful thinking than reality.

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