Russia, US spar over threat posed by Syria's chemical weapons

Russia sought to reassure the international community about the security and possible use of Syria's chemical weapons after Obama warned the Assad regime about 'red lines.'

Khalil Hamra/AP
In this Friday, Aug. 17, photo, a Syrian man walks by a building destroyed in an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria.

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An unnamed Russian official told leading Russian daily Kommersant that "confidential dialogue" with the Syrian regime has assured Moscow that President Bashar al-Assad will not use chemical weapons against the opposition in the country's civil war and that he remains capable of keeping them secure.

The disclosure was a response to President Obama's threat earlier this week of "enormous consequences" for the Assad regime if it seemed to be preparing to utilize its chemical weapons arsenal. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said, according to NBC News. "That would change my calculus."

According to the Kommersant report, the same Russian official said that Moscow thought it "entirely probable" that the US would act, Reuters reports.

Russia has vehemently opposed any outside intervention in Syria, blocking three United Nations Security Council resolutions to take stronger action against the Assad regime. Moscow's concern is that the US is using the threat of chemical weapons as an excuse for intervening in Syria militarily. Damascus shares those concerns. The Washington Post reports that Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said yesterday, “If this excuse does not work, [the US] will look for another excuse."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said two days ago that only the Security Council could authorize action against Syria and urged the international community not to try to impose "democracy by bombs," according to a separate Reuters report. 

According to the first Reuters report cited here, Russia said that after a Syrian official warned it could employ chemical weapons against "external aggressors," Russia told Damascus that "even the threat to employ the arsenal was unacceptable." Last month, Syria publicly acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical and biological weapons, and said that if other countries tried to intervene, it could use them. 

The Washington Post reports that some analysts have voiced their disapproval of Obama's remarks, fearing that they will be interpreted as a message that the US will not take action unless chemical weapons are engaged – rendering the use of heavy weapons, for example, permissible. 

“I don’t like his formulation at all. It inadvertently tells the Syrians they can get away with anything but chemical weapons,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the nonpartisan Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The unusually direct US warning on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction echoes discussion of the “red lines” that Iran must not cross in developing its disputed nuclear program.

Iran has carefully assembled nearly all the resources it needs to build a bomb without crossing the boundaries that the United States and others have drawn – such as the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of uranium to levels that would fuel a nuclear bomb. 

According to the Washington Post, the US is tracking at least four chemical weapons sites in Syria. It is concerned not only that the regime might use the weapons, but that the weapons might end up in Hezbollah's or Al Qaeda's hands amid the chaos of the civil war.

A senior Western official told the Post they've seen "no change" so far in either the location or level of safeguards on the weapons.

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