Russia warns US of 'catastrophic consequences' of Syria intervention

Russia warns US and the West that military action in Syria would be 'illegal.' But a strike on Syria may also 'play into Moscow's hands,' says one expert.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Russia warns US: President Barack Obama and other Western leaders show indications of preparing military intervention in Syria's civil war, the Kremlin warned that such action would be 'catastrophic' and 'illegal.' Shown, President Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012.

Russian leaders, increasingly convinced that the West is preparing for imminent military action in Syria, kept up a barrage of criticism Tuesday over what they claim will be an "illegal" and potentially "catastrophic" intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state.

A frustrated and increasingly despondent Moscow has already made clear that it can and will do nothing to stand in the way of Western military action against Syria, leaving it with few options beyond diplomatic sniping and rhetorical appeals to global public opinion. Russia has argued that Western nations are stampeding to judgement before all the facts are in about last week's alleged nerve gas attack in a Damascus suburb that may have killed more than 1,000 people.

Russia is also stressing that, absent a UN Security Council resolution authorizing force, any attack on Syria will be a violation of international law and a slippery slope that could lead to greater chaos in the region.

"Attempts to bypass the Security Council, to once again create artificial, unproven excuses for an armed intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement posted on the ministry's website Tuesday.

In another sign that military strikes could be just days away, the US cancelled a bilateral meeting scheduled for Wednesday at which mid-level US and Russian officials were to have discussed plans for the projected September Geneva-2 peace conference, at which Russia still hopes representatives of the Bashar al-Assad regime – brought to the table by Moscow – will sit down and hammer out a negotiated settlement with Syrian rebels sponsored by Washington.

"Moscow perceives Washington’s decision to postpone this meeting literally on the eve of the agreed-upon date with serious disappointment," Mr. Lukashevich said.

Georgy Mirsky, an expert with the Center for Development and Modernization with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations, says that Russia fully expects even limited Western military action will produce unexpected complications, such as civilian casualties, and that will provide Moscow with an opening to take the lead in restarting diplomacy.

"There's nothing Russia can or should do to stop Western military intervention in Syria," he says.

"Syria isn't Libya. Battles are going on everywhere, and it will prove impossible to set up a secure zone. There is zero chance that Western forces will launch a ground war. So, it will be limited cruise missile attacks from ships; that might weaken Assad, but will not likely be decisive," he says.

"Russia can sit and watch. A propaganda war will rage, and Moscow will be able to say that we wanted peace, we were working for the Geneva-2 conference, but it didn't happen because they opted for military force instead.... As things stand, developments will play into Moscow's hands. The US will compromise itself with another war in another Arab country, and look more than ever like a neo-colonialist power. Why would Obama want this?" he says.

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