Russia accuses West of blackmail on Syria plans

By Jim Heintz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 16 2012 6:47 a.m. MDT

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Monday, July 16, 2012. Lavrov said Monday the Western threats to discontinue the 300-strong U.N. unarmed observer mission to Syria if Russia does not agree to allow the West to use force in the country amounts to blackmail.

Sergey Ponomarev, Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russia on Monday accused the West of effectively trying to use blackmail to secure a new U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for the use of outside force to end Syria's civil war.

The Security Council is debating a new resolution on Syria as international envoy Kofi Annan's plan for halting the fighting appears dead and the violence in the Arab state escalates. Russia, a longtime Syria ally, is facing intense criticism that it is standing in the way of an end to the conflict there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Annan on Monday evening, though they were not expected to talk to the press afterward. The envoy was scheduled to meet with Russian President Putin on Tuesday.

Russia has adamantly opposed international military intervention in Syria, and such a step has been all but ruled out publicly by Western nations.

But the text for a Western-backed resolution circulated by Britain that calls for sanctions would leave the possibility open for military enforcement under the U.N. Charter's Chapter 7. Russia has submitted a rival text.

The debate comes as a mandate for a U.N. observer force expires on July 20, and Lavrov insisted that the West was using the deadline as a bargaining chip.

"To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail," Lavrov said at a news conference. "We are being told that if you do not agree to passing the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, then we shall refuse to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission."

"We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach, since it is unacceptable to use monitors as bargaining chips," he said.

The British draft threatens non-military sanctions against President Bashar Assad's government if it doesn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from population centers within 10 days.

Throughout the 16-month Syrian crisis, in which activists say some 17,000 people have been killed in fighting between Assad's forces and opposition groups, Russia has warned against foreign military intervention, fearing a repeat of the type of international action that helped drive Libya's Moammar Gadhafi out of power.

Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, and Moscow wants to retain a foothold in the region. Although the Kremlin has criticized Assad for heavy-handed use of force during the 18-month uprising, it — along with China — also has shielded the regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.

Russia maintains that any change of power in Syria must be achieved through negotiation, but the Syrian opposition has repeatedly said no negotiations with the Assad regime are possible unless he first leaves power.

Lavrov reiterated Moscow's position on Monday, saying it was unrealistic to try to persuade Assad to resign.

"He won't leave, not because we are defending him, but simply because a very significant part of the population in Syria stands behind him," he said.

Comments by Annan last week indicated that he favors the British resolution draft, but it was unclear if he would have any significant leverage to exert on Russia during his two-day trip to Moscow.

Lavrov said he would not characterize the Syrian situation as a stalemate, but expressed dismay with the ceaseless fighting. Over the weekend, the international Red Cross formally declared the conflict in Syria a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.

"What is happening in Syria is horrible," Lavrov said.

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