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Russian ambassador: Syrian opposition forces used protesters as “human shields”

Speaking April 27 at the University of Denver, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations said armed opposition groups in Syria used protesters there as “human shields” as they attacked government institutions at the start of the ongoing crisis.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin spoke with reporters at the University before delivering a lecture at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies on behalf of the Center for the Study of Europe and the World.

Churkin said western countries and Russia differ on how and why the conflict began. He said he believes armed groups with a preset agenda triggered the fighting. And, Churkin said, a diplomatic, peaceful resolution there would be possible if the opposition groups would come to the negotiating table, something they have not done so far.

“According to the information we have, this trouble that started in Syria over a year ago, demonstrations were almost immediately accompanied by various armed groups attacking government institutions,” Churkin said. “So it was not simply a peaceful demonstration process that was confronted by force from the government, but in a way those peaceful demonstrations were used as human shields by various armed groups that had their own agenda of directly confronting the government by force.”

Churkin added that those who believe that opposition groups, even with outside help, will overthrow the administration of President Bashar Assad are mistaken. The situation in Syria is dramatically different from other nations where uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring have resulted in regime change, he said.

Longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s downfall was a different situation, Churkin said. In that case, he explained, Gadhafi had little internal support and a weak military. Assad, on the other hand, enjoys the support of a majority of Syrians and has a strong military.

Churkin added that trouble in Libya was sparked by outside forces, although he said that likely was not the case in other nearby countries swept up in the Arab Spring.

“It will take historians to analyze the whole situation,” he said. “I think, for instance — I am saying it purely personally — that I think there is good reason, some evidence to believe, that actually what happened in Libya, this Benghazi revolt, the influence and the role of some foreign countries was very strong, and I don’t want to go into it, the reasons, but there is strong evidence to believe that they were behind the preparation of the whole thing. In the Arab world, overall, I think that was not the case.”

Russia and China have vetoed United Nations resolutions to pressure Assad to step down. Churkin asserted that his country believes negotiation and a peaceful resolution offer the only way to solve the crisis there.

He said Syria is important geographically and politically in the region, surrounded as it is by Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, which he called “fragile countries.” Consequently, peace and stability in Syria are important to the region.

If Syrians decide that Assad should step down, Russia will not intervene, he said, adding that Russia will not try to influence the direction the country takes once peace is restored.

Speaking to an overflow crowd of students, faculty and staff at the Korbel school’s SIÉ CHÉOU-KANG Center, Churkin said those who say Syria is a Russian ally are mistaken.  Rather, Syria is “very friendly” with Russia.

“There is no alliance,” he said.

But, he added, Russia will not allow for the U.N. Security Council to push for Assad’s ouster. That isn’t the United Nation’s role, he said.

“We believe that the United Nations Security Council, by charter, is not supposed to get involved in regime change,” he said

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