Moscow agrees that poison gas was used in a Damascus suburb last month, as detailed in a United Nations inspectors’ report, but Russia’s top diplomat said Tuesday that he's more convinced than ever that Syrian rebels were behind it, trying to frame Bashar al-Assad.
The comments from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were the latest effort by Russia to press its contention about who is to blame for the horrific Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,000 people.
Russia and the West agree over the strategic goal of liquidating Mr. Assad's chemical weapons arsenal, and the need to use the momentum generated by the diplomatic agreement to work toward a broader peace conference to end Syria's war. But there is sharp disagreement on the way forward, which was on full display in Mr. Lavrov's meeting with his French counterpart Tuesday.
"We have the most serious grounds to believe this was a provocation," Lavrov said during a press conference in Moscow.
"Some of our partners have unequivocally stated that only the Assad regime could have used chemical weapons, but the truth must be established," he said.
Russia has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions over the past two years, arguing they would have licensed outside intervention to push Assad from power. Now as diplomats haggle over a new resolution to start the weapon liquidation process, Moscow is digging in its heels and refusing to back any measure that allows for the use of force.
Washington and other Western nations argue that the threat of military strikes is what forced Assad declare his chemical arsenal and agree to dismantle it, and that the pressure must be kept on to make him comply.
The Russians, however, fear that such demands are yet another attempt by the Western allies to persuade Moscow to agree to an attack on the Assad regime. They've made clear they won't accept any resolution that makes reference to the UN Charter's Chapter 7, which defines when it is legal to use military force.
"The principal difference between the Russian and Western positions is that the US has made it clear that Assad must go, and they're not going to change their minds or stop trying to bring regime change about," says Georgy Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
"Russia's position is firm. We're not in love with Assad, but he is the legitimate leader of Syria," he adds. "It's up to the Syrian people and not any foreign country to decide this country's future."
Many military experts and analysts have concluded that Syrian rebels don't possess chemical weapons nor have the technical ability to use them. Russia's refusal to conclude the Assad regime was responsible culpability has fewer immediate consequences; no UN resolution hinges upon Russia coming around on this point. But that refusal could be the source of complications down the road as the international community gears up for the effort to locate, catalog and remove Syria's arsenal.
"When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack, as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the regime is behind it," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Moscow.
But Russia's position is that the UN inspection team had no mandate to identify the perpetrator of the Aug. 21 attacks, and did not do so. Lavrov insisted Tuesday that much more investigative work is required, and that the international community should wait before passing judgement. He also faulted Fabius' inference that the quantity of poison gas and the weapons used to deliver it suggests that the Assad regime was to blame.
"There is no answer to a number of questions we have asked, such as where the weapon was made –- at an official factory or using homemade methods," Lavrov said.
Russian officials say there's plenty of evidence that the Syrian rebels possess sarin gas, and that they also build their own surface-to-surface missiles.
"We hear this argument that the rebels are not technically or morally capable of doing such a thing, and we simply don't accept that," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst.
If Hamas in the Gaza strip, and Hezbollah in Lebanon can make their own missiles, he argues, Syrian rebels are perfectly capable of doing the same.
Analysts have speculated for years that the two groups manufacture their own missiles, though the missiles that are most commonly fired are considerered too sophisticated for a garage-type operation.
Russia also claims that the Syrian rebels have used poison gas in at least three incidents which the UN chemical weapons team was to investigate when it was diverted by the Aug. 21 attack. Last July Moscow submitted a 100-page report to the UN spelling out its case that a March sarin gas attack in the Syrian city of Aleppo that killed 26 people was carried out by rebel forces.
Moreover, Mr. Markov argues, rebels are the only ones with an incentive to use chemical weapons, because they are losing on the battlefield and Western intervention is the one thing that could turn the tide. He says ever since President Barack Obama made his "red line" remark warning of intervention if poison gas is used, the rebels and the Persian Gulf nations known to be financing and arming them – Qatar, for example – have been desperate to create just such an incident.
"We'd like to see these previous instances properly investigated, because you will find that the rebels have used poison gas before in this conflict. Logic dictates, and the evidence indicates, that this is also what happened near Damascus on Aug 21," Markov adds. "It would be a tragedy if the rebels succeeded in getting the West to go to war for them because of this. "