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Russia Warns Assad Ouster May Trigger Collapse, Mideast Unrest

Efforts by the West to force regime change in Syria after intervening to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi risk triggering the country's collapse and further instability in the Middle East, a senior Russian official said.

"I would advise all countries thinking about Syria to keep in mind the negative example of Libya," Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the lower house of parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in telephone interview in Moscow yesterday. "The risk of civil war there is even greater than in Libya, which would lead to the collapse of the country."

Russia this week rejected demands from the U.S. and the European Union for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of his regime's crackdown on five-month-old protests. Russia maintains its only military facility in the Middle East in Syria, a Soviet-era ally that is also a major buyer of Russian weapons.

The success of the rebels in Libya has implications for U.S. policy toward Syria, said Ben Rhodes, deputy U.S. national security adviser for strategic communications.

"It sends a message to Assad that the trends are against those who try to crack down and stifle change," Rhodes said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by the leaders of the U.K. France, Germany and Canada, on Aug. 18 called on Assad to step down.

Syria, which neighbors Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, is "one of the key countries in the region," and its religious diversity makes the nation vulnerable to internal conflict, Kosachyov said.

Splinter and Fight

Anti-Qaddafi forces, which were backed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes, will probably splinter and fight among themselves once the current campaign is over, according to Kosachyov.

"I don't want to be a prophet of ill tidings, but I fear Libya is facing serious unrest," he said. "There are various political forces, which will probably end up in conflict. This is a more realistic outcome than a happy ending in which democracy replaces dictatorship."

Russia, with power to veto United Nations Security Council resolutions, abstained from a March vote that authorized the air campaign by the U.S. and its allies and enabled rebel forces to halt an offensive by Qaddafi's forces.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, potential candidates in next year's presidential election, clashed over the Libya campaign, with Medvedev saying it was "unacceptable for Putin to describe NATO's involvement as a ''crusade.''

While later criticizing NATO for overstepping its mandate to protect civilians in Libya, Russia in May joined calls for Qaddafi's departure.

That won't help Russia keep billions of dollars in contracts it signed with Qaddafi's regime, Aram Shegunts, head of the Arab-Russian Chamber of Industry in Moscow.

''Russian companies will lose everything," Shegunts said in a telephone interview today. "NATO countries spent billions of dollars on this campaign and they won't give our companies a slice of the action."

Russian weapons exporters may lose contracts worth $4 billion, Sergei Chemezov, head of state-owned Russian Technologies Corp., said March 3 after the UN imposed an arms embargo on Libya. Potential civilian contracts in Libya, including for the construction of a railroad network, are worth "billions of dollars," Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said on March 22.

Energy companies such as state-run gas exporter OAO Gazprom and oil producer OAO Tatneft also have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the country.

Navy Base

In Syria, Russia maintains a servicing point for visiting navy vessels in the port of Tartus, which was a permanent base for Soviet warships in the Mediterranean in the Cold War.

Russia has weapons contracts with Syria worth at least $3 billion, according to Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. The orders include Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsir short-range air-defense systems.

Russia won't halt weapons deliveries to Syria, Anatoly Isaikin, the head of arms exporter Rosoboronexport, said Aug. 17. The country has repeatedly rejected Western demands to impose sanctions on its Syrian ally.

The U.S., Britain and France are preparing to ask the UN Security Council this week to freeze the foreign financial assets of Syrian president Assad, a Western diplomat said yesterday. The measure would also bar foreign travel by the Syrian leader and call for an arms embargo on Syria, the diplomat said.


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