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Russia's Syrian concern

Russia's Syrian concern
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The Syrian government says it had no hand in the Houla atrocity, blaming terrorists. The head of the UN Mission in Syria named no culprit. Western and Arab states opposed to President Assad blamed his government.

Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin said: “Whose interests could such moves serve? You may think of provocation, you may think of infiltration of certain elements. That has to be investigated.”

Russia and China, which had previously vetoed Security Council resolutions against Assad, have both approved a non-binding text in New York that criticised the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in Houla. But they would not blame the government alone.

The rebels do not have artillery and tanks.

Russia suggested that the violence in Houla, in particular, had been intended to sabotage visits by Annan to meet the Syrian Foreign Minister and Assad today and tomorrow.

Again, this massacre raises deep misgivings over what use UN soldiers in Syria can be. They are there with a mandate to verify that the fighting factions respect a cease-fire, not to check the body count – not just to quantify how badly the Annan truce is breached.

The Chinese have condemned the surging bloodshed more strongly but stopped short of directly condemning Assad. Beijing still says Annan’s efforts remain the best hope for stopping the violence.

The Syrian revolt has left around 15,000 people dead, since it began more than a year ago. Since the cease-fire commitment a month and a half ago, the toll is 2,000. Sixty percent of these were civilians.

Any hope for forceful international intervention in Syria is still very hard to realise, however.

The stakes for Russia are high.

Moscow has an interest in arms sales to the region, and has written off large Syrian debts in the past. Russian military vessels use the Syrian port of Tartous on the Mediterranean. It is the only such base outside Russia’s own borders.

But its regional balance of power concern is bigger than this. Regime change in Damascus would weaken Iran, and analysts point out that while Russia’s investment in Syria is significant, its investment in Iran is huge.