In Syria chemical weapons debate, Russia toes middle line

Moscow says the UN should investigate the alleged attack earlier this week, but has also accused the opposition of fabricating evidence of the event.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
Activists look for dead bodies to collect samples to check for chemical weapon use, in the Zamalka area, where activists say chemical weapons were used by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the eastern suburbs of Damascus Thursday, August 22.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov answers questions at a news conference at the Embassy of Russia to talk about the growing discord between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Friday, August 9, in Washington. Lavrov talked Thursday, Aug. 22, by phone with US Secretary of State John Kerry and agreed there must be 'an objective investigation into the reported information on possible use of chemical weapons' that killed a thousand or more people in a Damascus suburb early Wednesday morning.

Russia sought Friday to dispel the widespread impression that it had "watered down" a United Nations Security Council statement calling for an urgent probe into reports that a chemical weapons attack killed a thousand or more people in a Damascus suburb early Wednesday morning.

In a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website Friday, spokesman Alexander Lukashevich insisted that Russia is urging Syrian authorities to allow a UN team of chemical weapons investigators that is already in Damascus to travel to the suburb of Ghouta, where the attack allegedly took place.

The statement also calls upon Syrian rebels – whom Moscow has loudly accused of fabricating evidence of the attack – to ensure safe passage for the UN delegation through territory which they control. 

"We urge all those who have any influence with the opposition to take the necessary steps in order to ensure that the international experts can fully carry out its tasks," the statement says.

In a separate note, the ministry said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talked Thursday by phone with US Secretary of State John Kerry and agreed there must be "an objective investigation into the reported information on possible use of chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus.... [Mr. Lavrov] emphasized that immediately after [those reports were received in Moscow] the Russian side called on the Government of Syria to cooperate with the experts of the United Nations. Now the ball is in the rebels' court; they must provide safe access for the mission to the alleged site of the incident," it said.

Some Russian experts say that Moscow is growing weary of being blamed for allegedly throwing obstacles in the path of international action on Syria, when they claim to be merely taking a skeptical view of any information that emerges from the turbulence of Syria's multi-sided civil war.

"Russia isn't ready to jump to conclusions. It seems to us that the West is far too eager to apportion blame before all the facts are in," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "may not be a nice guy, but that doesn't mean he's guilty of this exact allegation," he says. "Russia is skeptical of these reports, with good reasons. How convenient is it that this supposed attack happened just as a UN chemical weapons team was visiting Damascus? And another thing, why would anyone trust the rebels?"

"We perceive that there are dozens of rebel groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and backed by the intelligence services of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have an obvious interest in goading the US into intervening on their side. Why Americans seem so ready to believe any stories these people report is totally beyond us," he adds. 

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