Syrian security forces continue to brutalize the civilian population, bringing the death toll to more than 2,600 since protests against President Bashar Assad's government began in late March, according to the United Nations. But Russian officials, troubled by the prospect of jeopardizing billions of dollars worth of military sales and other commerce, are fighting against efforts to penalize the Syrian dictatorship for its crimes.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday criticized proposals for passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. Any resolution needed to be aimed at "both parties" to the conflict, he said, even though virtually all of the violence is being perpetrated by government forces, a point U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford made on his Facebook page.
Despite continuing reports of brutality by Syrian security forces, regime officials remain welcome in Moscow. On Monday, Assad's media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban met with Russian lawmakers there. A government official pledged assistance to Damascus after that meeting, and said a delegation of Russian lawmakers would visit Syria soon in an effort "to ease political tensions in the region."
Russian media accounts suggest Moscow's motivations may be less noble - specifically, to prevent a collapse of the Assad government - which could jeopardize Moscow's substantial economic and military interests in Syria.
The Moscow Times reported recently that Russia has more than $4 billion in active arms contracts with Damascus, including surface-to-air missiles, artillery systems, anti-tank weaponry and MiG-29 fighters. Syria also hosts Russia's sole Mediterranean naval base, at Tartus. Russian investment in Syria totaled $19.4 billion in 2009.
The current unrest could put Moscow's money at risk. In February, Russian state-run utility company Inter RAO announced a $500 million plan to expand across the Middle East in Syria and other nations. But late last month a spokesman for the firm said it had no intention of working in Syria and had no connection to that country.
Moscow could pay a price for backing for Assad if he is overthrown. Pro-democracy activists announced that Tuesday will be a "day of anger" against Russia for backing the Syrian regime.
"Do not support the killers," dissidents urged Russia on a new Facebook page called "The Syrian Revolution 2011."
They added: "We express our anger towards Russia and the Russian government. The regime will disappear, but the [Syrian] people will live."