Andrew Osborn








Russia accuses Nato of plotting "direct military action" in Syria

The Daily Telegraph, 13th January 2012 08:07

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Richard Spencer and James Kirkup

NATO and its allies are plotting "direct military intervention" in Syria, Russia's security apparatus claimed yesterday, as it hit back at Western criticism of its support for the Assad regime.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Kremlin's security council, said he had seen intelligence indicating plans for a military incursion were well advanced.

"We are getting information that Nato members and some Persian Gulf states, operating according to the Libya scenario, intend to move from indirect intervention in Syrian affairs to direct military intervention," he said in an interview published in the Kommersant newspaper.

"This time it is true that the main strikes forces will not be provided by France, the UK or Italy, but possibly by neighbouring Turkey, which was until recently on good terms with Syria and is a rival of Iran with immense ambitions."

America and Turkey were even now possibly already refining options for a no–fly zone that would allow armed Syrian opposition fighters to mass in the designated areas, he added.

Russia has come under pressure at the United Nations to soften its opposition to sanctions or other action against the Assad regime, one of its few remaining close strategic allies in the Middle East.

A further sign of the importance of its backing came with the arrival of what is believed to be an arms shipment to the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval supply and maintenance base.

A ship owned by a St Petersburg–based company dropped anchor off Cyprus on Wednesday and local officials claimed its cargo was in violation of the European Union arms embargo on Damascus. It claimed to be on its way to Turkey, but Turkish officials yesterday said it had instead made straight for Tartus.

The precise nature of its cargo remains unclear but agencies in Cyprus and Russia claimed it was carrying munitions from Rosoboronexport, the Russian state arms company.

Mr Patrushev claimed that the real reason Syria was coming under so much international pressure to end a crackdown on the opposition was geopolitical.

"The plan is to punish Damascus not so much for repressing the opposition as for its unwillingness to sever its friendly relations with Tehran," he said.

Carmen Romero, a Nato spokesman, denied Mr Patrushev's claims. "There is no discussion of a Nato role with respect to Syria," she said.

She added that Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary general, had previously stated that the alliance had "no intention whatsoever" of intervening.

Turkey has openly discussed the possibility of creating a buffer zone inside Syria for refugees. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al–Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, also discussed Syria with the US vice–president Joe Biden and Tom Donilon, the White House's national security adviser, in Washington on Wednesday.

A senior British source said the Russian claim was no more than an attempt to rally Arab opinion against the West.

"This is a fairly transparent attempt by the Russians to make it harder for us to persuade the Arab League to join us in putting pressure on Syria at the UN," the source said.

"This is really about Russia trying to protect its commercial relationship with Syria."