Russia to fight move by Syrian opposition to take Syria's U.N. seat

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia vowed on Thursday to oppose an expected push by the Syrian opposition to take over Syria's seat at the United Nations and predicted that any Syrian National Coalition bid at the world body would fail.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, made the comment to reporters after Moscow criticized the Arab League for giving Syria's seat to the opposition at a league summit. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Arab League had abandoned hope for a peaceful end to Syria's 2-year civil war.

"We'll oppose it very strongly," Churkin said in response to a question about a likely Syrian opposition move in New York to follow its success in gaining Arab League recognition.

"But I don't think it's going to happen because ... most of the members of the United Nations are responsible members ... that value this institution," he said. "I think they understand that if something of this sort were to happen it would really undercut the standing of the United Nations."

"You do not simply seat opposition groups who have gone through no proper process of legitimization," he said. "We need to have legitimate authorities."

Several Security Council diplomats said the Syrian National Coalition, which is establishing liaison offices in New York and Washington, will make a play for Syria's U.N. seat.

The coalition's U.S. offices are headed by Najib Ghadbian, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. Ghadbian said it would make sense for the opposition to have Syria's U.N. seat.

"The Assad regime is not a legitimate government," Ghadbian said in a statement to Reuters. "It lost the legitimacy to represent Syria the day it began its armed campaign against the Syrian people, which has resulted in death, destruction, and a humanitarian catastrophe that requires immediate attention from the international community."

One senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity that the opposition may push for the Syrian U.N. seat in September when world leaders gather at the United Nations for the annual high-level meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

An Arab diplomat, however, told Reuters a move to transfer the Syrian U.N. seat to the opposition could come much sooner.

The Syrian National Coalition, which is recognized by the Arab League as the sole representative for Syria, opened its first embassy on Wednesday in Qatar in a diplomatic blow to President Bashar al-Assad.

DEADLOCK

Russia is a member of the 9-nation U.N. credentials committee, as is the United States. That committee reviews requests to accredit diplomats to the U.N. and makes recommendations to the General Assembly. Russia does not have a veto on that committee or in the 193-nation General Assembly.

But it does have a veto on the Security Council, which has been deadlocked on Syria since 2011. Russia and China have refused to consider sanctions on Assad's government, vetoing three resolutions condemning his crackdown on opposition groups.

Russia, which supplies arms to Assad's government but says it is not delivering weapons that could be used in the civil war, has vehemently opposed arming or supporting the rebels.

There are 114 nations - well over half of the members of the General Assembly - in the so-called Friends of Syria. Western and Arab diplomats say those countries would likely support the Syrian National Coalition in any General Assembly vote.

"Most countries have recognized the Syrian Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people," Ghadbian said, adding that the U.N. "can help ensure a stable transition in Syria to a peaceful, democratic, and inclusive state structure by granting the Syria U.N. seat to (Syria's opposition)."

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests that turned violent when Assad tried to crush the revolt. The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have been killed and nearly 1.2 million have fled the violence.

There are several precedents for a national opposition movement taking over a country's U.N. seat. In 2010, the General Assembly recognized a representative of Alassane Ouattara as Ivory Coast's U.N. ambassador.

In doing so, the General Assembly recognized Ouattara as Ivory Coast's legitimate president after the United Nations said he beat former President Laurent Gbagbo in an election.

In 2011, the Libyan opposition took over Libya's U.N. seat after Tripoli's entire U.N. mission defected to the side of the rebels seeking to overthrow longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Jim Loney)