Chemical weapons in Syria: How Russia views the debate

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the reports are an effort to derail a planned peace conference led by Russia and the US.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
A girl, with cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, shouts slogans while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York Wednesday.

Both Russian officials and independent experts in Moscow heaped doubts today on the veracity of reports that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad killed more than 1,000 people using poison gas in an attack on rebels in a Damascus suburb Wednesday.

"Russia isn't persuaded by any of these reports. Nobody in Moscow believes Assad would use chemical weapons, especially now that he's winning without them, and he'd be crazy to do so on the very day that UN inspectors are visiting Damascus to look into reports of chemical weapon use," says Sergei Markov, a frequent adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

"It's obvious to us that we're looking at a well-prepared provocation, possibly staged by Qatar or Saudi Arabian intelligence, aimed at whipping up emotions in the West and triggering an armed intervention to aid the rebels. It's clear the rebels can't hope to win without such assistance from outside, so they are the only ones who have any stake in creating an example like this. Russia is not going to support any moves in that direction," he adds.

Public opinion has been deeply shocked by videos that allegedly show the victims of the attack, including rows of bodies with no signs of physical violence upon them as well as survivors gasping for air and staring with vacant eyes.

Experts say that Moscow is alarmed by what it perceives as a changed tone of conversation in the West in the wake of the reports, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' remark that, if proven, the attacks would warrant a "reaction of force."

Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told journalists Wednesday that Moscow believes the reports are a sophisticated effort to derail the planned Geneva-2 peace conference, which Russia and the US have been trying, so far with fading success, to organize.

The rebels and their Persian Gulf sponsors want to "create a pretext at any cost for demanding that the UN Security Council stand on the side of the opponents of the regime, and in this way undermine the chances of convening the Geneva conference," Mr. Lukashevich said.

In a press briefing Monday, before the poison gas reports, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki insisted plans to hold the conference were still on track.

"We have long agreed with Russia that a conference in Geneva is the best vehicle for moving towards a political solution," Ms. Psaki said. "We all agree the talks cannot become a stalling tactic, and Secretary Kerry has been very clear on this point with the Russians."

Russian vetoes

The Russian position, in a nutshell, is that Moscow supports a proper investigation of the alleged poison gas event, but will never back any UN resolution that authorizes outside intercession in the spiraling civil war that has already killed over 100,000 Syrians. Russia has already vetoed two such moves in the UN Security Council, aimed at pressuring Mr. Assad to leave, and continues to insist that the only viable road to peace is for the big powers, Russia and the US, to bring their clients to the negotiating table to hammer out a settlement.

Though authorities in Damascus have so far denied the UN delegation permission to travel to the site of Wednesday's alleged poison gas attack, Russian experts say this is not Moscow's doing.

The UN team, which arrived in Damascus over the weekend with permission to visit three other alleged chemical weapons sites, had full approval from Moscow, says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant.

"I read in the Western media that Russia acted to 'water down' the UN Security Council statement on the attacks, and I don't know what this means," he says.

"You know, any decision taken in the Security Council is the result of bargaining and infighting, and it's not at all clear what's going on. There are no official details yet, but I don't think Russia is against investigating such events on principle. Of course, there is a clash of opinions over who's responsible. Russia thinks the rebels and their Arab sponsors are behind this, the West wants to blame Assad. Obviously there will be struggle over the mandate of any investigation, the composition of the team and the shape of their final report. That's how things work at the UN," he says.

Russia's view that the alleged gas attack was a fabricated propaganda attempt to swing Western support behind the rebels is on full display in a series of columns and interviews with dissenting Western analysts posted on the website of the Kremlin-funded English-language TV network Russia Today, which prefers to be called RT. Examples can be found here, here, and here.

"As for the poison gas story, how can we know anything for sure at this point?" says Georgy Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"Both sides could have used it, both sides are capable of it, but it does look like such an episode would be more beneficial to the rebels. Civil wars are terrible. They are started by decent people, but in the course of the conflict these decent people become monsters. We've seen all this before, the atrocities pile up as in no other kind of war. Meanwhile, no one is asking the Syrian people what they want." 

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