MOSCOW — Russia is providing Syria with weapons to fend off external threats but has no intention to use military force to protect Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Russian foreign minister said Wednesday.
Sergey Lavrov said that Russia currently isn't supplying any arms that could be used against protesters, and issued a moderate criticism of Assad for being slow to conduct vital reforms.
"We are selling weapons to Syria for its national defense, national security," Lavrov told lawmakers in the lower house of Russian parliament. "We aren't providing Syria with any weapons that could be used against protesters, against peaceful citizens, helping fuel the conflict. We aren't doing that, we are only helping Syria to protect its security against external threats."
Moscow has protected Syria, its key ally since the Soviet times, from U.N. sanctions over the Assad regime's bloody suppression of a yearlong uprising, in which the U.N. says over 7,500 have been killed.
It also backs Assad's claim that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy, saying that weapons and militants had flown into Syria from abroad.
Russia has been the main supplier of arms for the Syrian military, which has relied almost exclusively on Soviet and Russian-made weapons, from assault rifles to tanks to aircraft and missiles.
Lavrov insisted that Moscow's stance was rooted in respect for the international law, not a desire to defend its client.
"We aren't standing up for the regime or specific personalities, we are defending the international law that demands that internal conflicts are settled without foreign interference," Lavrov told the parliament.
Moscow has vowed to block any U.N. resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO action helped oust Moammar Gadhafi. It has accused the West of fueling the Syrian conflict by backing the opposition and failing to demand that its forces pull out from besieged cities along with government troops.
Lavrov said that Moscow has been working on "daily basis" with the Syrian government to urge it to take "steps that would calm the situation." He said that other nations should use their ties to the opposition to help end violence.
Showing a degree of irritation with Assad, Lavrov said that the Syrian leader hasn't always listened to the Russian advice and has been slow to conduct long-overdue reforms.
"Regrettably, he hasn't always followed our advice in his activities," Lavrov said. "He has approved useful laws reviving the system and making it more pluralistic. But it has been done after a long delay, and the proposals about launching a dialogue also have been slow to come. Meanwhile, the armed confrontation is expanding and its inertia may sweep and engulf all."
Lavrov warned that the Syrian conflict may escalate into a broader confrontation between the Sunnis and the Shiites across the Middle East. "It may end in a big explosion, involving Iraq and Iran," he said.
Syria, where the Sunni majority makes up the backbone of the uprising, has a fragile mix of ethnic and religious groups including Shiites, Christians and Shiite offshoot Alawites, a sect to which Assad and the ruling elite belong. The Sunni monarchies in the Gulf have strogly backed the uprising, in an apparent hope to curtail the influence of Shiite-ruled Iran.
"It's a very fragile state, and if the current structure is removed the entire pyramid will collapse," Lavrov said.