United Nations – Peeved at Russia's Security Council veto derailing a Western- sponsored resolution against Syria last week, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice implicitly accused the Russians of protecting the beleaguered government of President Bashar al-Assad primarily to safeguard their lucrative arms market in the Middle Eastern country.
But around the same time, the United States was evaluating a 53- million-dollar weapons contract with Bahrain, where political unrest has claimed the lives of 34 people, mostly civilians, at least 1,400 others have been arrested, and more than 3,600 dismissed from their jobs for participating in street demonstrations demanding a democratic government.
“The U.S. government appears hypocritical when it condemns the use of force against Syrian protestors but condones similar behaviour in Bahrain,” Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS.
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Sadly, she said, the administration of President Barack Obama is on shaky ground when it lectures other countries about their arms transfers.
“Its recent announcement of proposed weapons sales to Bahrain signals business as usual, at a time when we should be doing the opposite,” she said.
The proposed arms contract, which has triggered strong protests from human rights groups, includes 44 armoured high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), wire-guided and other missiles and launchers, along with related equipment and training.
Maria McFarland, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said, “It will be hard for people to take U.S. statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons.”
Goldring pointed out that Ambassador Rice said the opponents of the U.N. resolution would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.
“Transferring weapons to Bahrain leaves the U.S. government vulnerable to the same accusation that we would rather sell arms to the Bahrain regime than to stand with the people of Bahrain.” she added.
The Obama administration would be in a much stronger position to influence other countries behaviour if it stopped selling weapons to countries that abuse their citizens' human rights, Goldring said.
Although a majority of the Security Council members – nine out of 15 – voted in favour of last week's resolution, qualifying it to be adopted, the two vetoes by Russia and China negated the positive result.
The draft resolution, which strongly condemned the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by Syrian authorities, drew positive votes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, France, Gabon, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the UK and the United States.
The countries abstaining were India, Brazil, South Africa (collectively known as IBSA) and Lebanon.
The resolution, which was co-sponsored by France, Germany, Portugal and the UK, also called on Syria to immediately cease the use of force against civilians.
If Syria failed to do so within 30 days, the Security Council would consider “other options”, a euphemism for economic and military sanctions.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher in the Arms Transfers Programme of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS Russia is Syria's most important arms supplier.
In the past five years, he said, Russia delivered an estimated 36 Pantsyr-S1 mobile air defence systems and a quantity of Igla-S man portable surface-to-air missiles.
All indications are that more is on order and to be delivered, including reportedly 24 MiG-29SMT combat aircraft, a Bastion coast defence system with Yakhont missiles, several Buk longer range surface-to-air missile systems and an unknown number of YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft.
“Altogether the Syrian orders make up a significant amount in revenues for the Russian arms industry,” Wezeman said.
After losing the Iranian and Libyan markets, he said, they would not be keen to lose this market too, and this is likely to be one reason, amongst others, for Russia to resist arms-related sanctions on Syria.
Goldring told IPS that Syria is a key Russian political and military ally in the Middle East. But Russia also has strong economic motivations to maintain this relationship.
According to a recently released Congressional Research Service report, Syrian arms sales accounted for nearly a quarter of Russia's global arms sales agreements reached between 2007 and 2010.
“While China has also had an active arms transfer relationship with Syria, Russia has dominated the Syrian market, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all arms sales agreements with Syria between 2007 and 2010,” Goldring said.
After China and Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution, Ambassador Rice said, “Those who oppose this resolution…will have to answer to the Syrian people and, indeed, to people across the region who are pursuing the same universal aspirations.”
She didn't refer to China and Russia by name, although they were the only countries that voted against the resolution.
“Russia and China seem to have united against a common adversary. Together, they're acting as a counterweight to U.S. diplomatic and military activity in the Middle East,” said Goldring.
After the vote, Rice told reporters: “No, I don't think diplomacy or pressure has reached a dead end.”
“I mean, the fact of the matter is, despite the vote that we saw today in the Council, the majority of members supported the resolution,” she said.
“This is not, as some would like to pretend, a Western issue. We had countries all over the world supporting this resolution, and we have countries throughout the region who have been very clear that the brutality of the Assad regime has to end and that the behaviour of the regime is absolutely intolerable.”