MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is standing firm on blocking any U.N. sanctions against Syria, its longtime ally and a significant arms customer, saying that any resolution by the world body must exclude the possibility of international military involvement such as in Libya.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that U.N. approval for sanctions against Syria mirroring those by other nations would be "unfair and counterproductive."
The U.S., the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey all have introduced sanctions against Damascus in response to Syrian President Bashar Assad's violent crackdown on opponents. The uprising has left more than 5,400 people dead, according to the U.N. estimates.
The U.N. Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began in March because of strong opposition from Russia and China.
Russia, resistant to what it believes to be Western hegemony, characteristically opposes interventionism and the imposition of sanctions. This week, it harshly criticized new European Union sanctions against Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Lavrov said Russia's own draft of a U.N. resolution regarding Syria, which circulated earlier this month, remains on the table, and that Moscow is open for any "constructive proposals." The draft calls on all parties to stop the violence, citing the "disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities" and urging the Syrian government "to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association."
But Western diplomats said the Russian proposal falls short of their demand for a strong condemnation of the Syrian regime's crackdown.
Lavrov affirmed that any U.N. resolution must say clearly it "couldn't be interpreted to justify any foreign military interference in the Syrian crisis."
"We believe that our approach is fair and well-balanced, unlike the attempts to pass one-sided resolutions that would condemn only one party and, by doing so, encourage another one to build up confrontation and take an uncompromising stance," Lavrov said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "We have seen that in Libya, and we will not allow repetition of the Libyan scenario."
Russia abstained in the U.N. vote authorizing military intervention in Libya, but harshly criticized NATO for what it saw as an excessive use of force and civilian casualties during the NATO bombing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
Rebels eventually overthrew Gadhafi with enormous military support from the Western alliance. NATO jets flew 26,000 sorties against Libya in 2011, destroying about 5,900 military targets.
Russian officials have strongly warned the West against emulating the Libyan strategy in Syria.
Lavrov called for a quick start of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, suggesting they could be hosted by Egypt, the Arab League, Turkey or Russia.
Asked about the Arab League's call Sunday for a unity government in Syria in two months, Lavrov said Russia believes the talks between the Syrian government and the opposition should start without any preconditions.
"We proceed from the assumption that all participants in such dialogue would seek to reach accord and show responsibility for the fate of the country and its people," he said.
Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have pulled out of the Arab League's observers mission in Syria, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene. But such action is unlikely with Russia's opposition to sanctions.
Russia hosted some Syrian opposition leaders last fall, but its efforts to encourage them to sit down for talks with the government have brought no results.
Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times, when Syria was led by the president's father, Hafez Assad. It has supplied Syria with aircraft, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons. The 27-nation EU, in contrast, has imposed an arms embargo against Syria.
Earlier this month, a Russian ship allegedly carrying tons of munitions made a dash for Syria after telling officials in EU member Cyprus, where it had made an unexpected stop, that it was heading to Turkey. Turkish officials said the ship went instead to the Syrian port of Tartus.
Lavrov said last week that Moscow doesn't consider it necessary to offer an explanation or excuses over the incident, saying that Russia was acting in full respect of international law and wouldn't be guided by unilateral sanctions imposed by other nations.
On Monday, a top Russian business daily reported that Moscow had signed a $550 million contract to sell 36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria. The Russian state arms-trading company declined comment.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said the deal represented an eleventh-hour attempt by Moscow to take advantage of its role of Syria's monopolist weapons supplier.
"Anticipating different possible scenarios, Russia is in a hurry to use the current status quo to pursue its commercial interests," Lukyanov told the AP. "It would be a good contract if Assad stays on."
He added that Russia realizes that its power is limited but has decided to back Assad, its last remaining ally in the region.
"An attempt to abruptly shift side and take a different stance in a hope to preserve some ground will be useless," he said. "Even if Russia now backs the Syrian opposition, the new authorities wouldn't need Russia anyway."
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