Could Putin change his mind on action against Syria?

Putin said that Russia would take a 'principled position' once it got 'objective, precise data' on who alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.

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As Congress mulls authorizing military action against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin held firm in his skepticism over the possibility that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons last month. But he also offered a hint that he could be persuaded to back intervention into the Syrian conflict – if the United Nations Security Council authorized it.

In a televised interview recorded Tuesday with the Associated Press and Russian television network First Channel, Mr. Putin said that he found footage of the alleged chemical attacks "horrible." But he added that he was not convinced by the evidence presented by the US and its allies that Bashar al-Assad and his forces were to blame, reports The Los Angeles Times.

“This footage doesn’t provide answers to the questions I myself put now,” he responded. “There is an opinion that [the footage] was compiled by the same rebels who as we know and the US administration recognizes are connected with Al Qaeda and have always been notorious for their special cruelty.” ...

“We think that for [the Syrian government's] regular armed forces, which are on the attack today and in some places they have surrounded the so-called rebels and are finishing them off, in fact it is totally absurd to use prohibited chemical weapons knowing full well that it could be a pretext to take sanctions against them, including the use of force,” Putin said.

Putin called the use of weapons of mass destruction a crime and said that Russia “will take a principled position” once it gets “objective, precise data as to who committed these crimes.”

Putin did offer a hint that he could be persuaded to back military intervention against the Syrian government: “I do not exclude it," he said, when asked about the possibility. But The New York Times adds that he followed that by underscoring the need for the UN Security Council to authorize such force – a body that has refused to act so far, due to both Russia's and China's vetoes.

“I want to draw your attention to one absolutely fundamental fact,” he said. “In accordance with applicable international law, the authorization of the use of force against a sovereign state can only be given by the Security Council of the United Nations. Any other reasons, or methods, to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state are unacceptable and cannot be qualified as anything other than aggression.”

The BBC's Daniel Sanford notes that Putin's acknowledgement that he might back intervention is "something he has not done before" and gives him "a little wriggle room," though Mr. Sanford also says that Putin has set "a high bar" for such.

But while Putin remains unconvinced that Syria deployed chemical weapons, the debate in Washington reached another stage in Congressional hearings yesterday. The Christian Science Monitor reports that as Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the main concern was the wisdom of intervention:

Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Iraq's shadow when he said he understood congressional reluctance to authorize the use of force based on intelligence assessments that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians on Aug. 21. He was seated next to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel – who, like him, voted as a senator in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. "We are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence," Secretary Kerry said.

But Kerry rattled senators when he said that, while the president “has no intention and we do not want to put American troops on the ground to fight this civil war” in Syria, he also did not want “to take off the table an option” for securing Syria’s chemical weapons.

Pushed by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, Kerry later stated flatly that “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the Syrian civil war.” But the threat of becoming bogged down in another Middle Eastern war still worried many senators.

Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico ... called the draft resolution the White House sent to the Hill Saturday “a very open-ended proposal” that he saw as a “potential next step towards full-fledged war.”

“We’re saying once again that the United States will be the world’s policeman,” he said, adding that it reminded him of the path to the Iraq war, which he called “one of the biggest blunders in US foreign policy.” ...

Much of the senators’ questioning focused on the unforeseeable risks of intervening militarily. “What happens if this gets away from us?” queried Sen. James Risch (R) of Idaho.

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