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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Russia Stands By Assad As Syria Claims Rebels Used Chemical Weapons

Syrian President Bashar Assad is pictured in Tehran, Iran, August 2009. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Syrian President Bashar Assad is pictured in Tehran, Iran, August 2009. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Russia says Syria has provided new “material evidence” that Syrian rebels, not government forces, are responsible for using chemical weapons in the deadly attack on the town of Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

Russia, a long-time ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is also blasting a report by United Nations weapons inspectors about the attack, calling the document biased, politicized and one-sided.

Russia also notes that the report deals only with the Ghouta attack and not with three previous incidents where chemical weapons were also allegedly used.

The tensions come as the U.N. works to draft a Security Council resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons, and with less than a week before Syria is supposed to provide a complete list of its chemical weapons supply and facilities.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, it's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, it now seems as if Aaron Alexis may have struggled with mental health issues. So should the alleged Navy Yard shooter have retained a Navy security clearance?

HOBSON: But first, Russia says it has new material evidence showing that Syrian rebels and not government forces used chemical weapons in a deadly attack in August. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and is also blasting a report by the United Nations weapons inspectors, calling it biased, politicized and one-sided.

The tensions come as the U.N. works to draft a Security Council resolution on Syria's chemical weapons. The BBC's Daniel Sandford joins us from Moscow with more. And Daniel, tell us more, first of all, about this evidence that Russia says it has that the rebels used chemical weapons.

DANIEL SANDFORD: Well, we can't tell you much more about it because the Russians haven't exactly played their hand yet. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, said that he will present this evidence to the United Nations Security Council at some point in the future. But what we know about it is that it was given to the Russians by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem. It was given to the deputy Russian foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, during his visit to Damascus, where he is at the moment discussing the details of the American-Russian deal that was done at the weekend.

HOBSON: So the Russians say they have the evidence. I imagine a lot of Americans listening to this are going to think, well - well, where is it then?

SANDFORD: Well, it would be a good question because of course that's exactly what the Russians have been saying every time that the Americans say they've got evidence about the Assad regime being involved. But certainly at this stage the Russians aren't presenting it, so I think it's worth putting in the context of the fact that thus far the Russians have been prepared to back President Assad absolutely to the hilt, all the way, apart from, of course, this big concession last week, when they decided it was time for him to give up his chemical weapons arsenal, basically because of the threat of the United States military strikes.

HOBSON: Well, tell us what's going on at the United Nations with the idea of a Security Council resolution and where the sides are on how they might move forward on this.

SANDFORD: Well, I think you have to look at it as this, that the Russians never give anything unless they absolutely have to. And they felt eventually last week that in order to defend their interests, in order to make sure that their biggest ally in the Middle East, President Assad, didn't get bombed by the Americans, the view was at that point they had to act. And the way they worked was to essentially persuade President Assad to give up his chemical weapons arsenal.

But beyond that, the Russians are unlikely to want to give an inch. They are very, very, very tough negotiators. And so this idea that the British and the French and the Americans had on Monday that, oh, well, now we can have a nice Security Council resolution with a tough threat, the Russians just aren't interested in that.

They're looking at the details of the wording of the deal that they did with John Kerry on Saturday, and that says that the process to be followed is that Syria reports to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about the details of its chemical weapons arsenal and that then there should be a resolution presented to the executive body of that organization by the Russians and the Americans, and then only at some point in the future, if the Syrians don't comply, should there be some consideration of a United Nations Security Council resolution. That's the Russians' interpretation of the deal done at the weekend.

HOBSON: So the idea that the Americans and the Russians are going to be on the same side of a resolution here is by no means a done deal.

SANDFORD: I don't think it's a done deal at all. I think if there were some very gentle resolution, which went along the lines of exactly the deal that was done between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov at the weekend, then I'm sure the Russians would be open to signing up to that. But I think the idea of going beyond that agreement at the moment is anathema to them.

They're saying look at what the agreement says. At one point they were saying that Chapter 7, which is sort of the tough chapter, as it were, of the United Nations charter, wasn't even mentioned in the agreement with John Kerry. Well, actually it is mentioned in the agreement with John Kerry but only as something that might happen if the Syrians don't comply with their promises to give up chemical weapons.

HOBSON: So Daniel, one of the confusing parts of this, just bringing us back to what we were talking about at the beginning, is that if the Russians believe that it was the rebels who launched the chemical attack, why would they go along with the idea of taking away Assad's chemical weapons if they don't think that he did anything wrong?

SANDFORD: Well, I think it goes back to the point that I made about the Russians deal always in what's in their immediate national interest. And I think they took the view last week that the threat of possible airstrikes against the Syrian regime was so serious, and the risk of what might happen after that was so serious, that they had to something.

I think they spotted this opportunity when John Kerry mentioned it last Monday as the way of preventing the U.S. airstrikes. But that does not mean that they were going to concede any more ground, whether or not they really believe that the rebels were responsible for that chemical weapons attack on August 21. It seems unlikely to me, given the amount of conversations and the amount of evidence that they would have seen in their conversations with the Americans, but they're not going to concede that publicly, and they're going to go on causing trouble, as we saw today with the comments in Damascus by Sergei Ryabkov, they're going to go on causing trouble by saying, well, we've also seen evidence that the rebels were responsible for this attack.

Don't forget, at one point yesterday, Sergey Lavrov, in his press conference standing alongside the French foreign minister, started quoting as possible sources of evidence a nun in a convent nearby to Damascus and all sorts of evidence floating around on the Internet and in the media and also a woman journalist who spoke to some rebels who said that they might have got some weapons from a strange sort of place.

That's the kind of evidence they're presenting to counter the United Nations weapons inspectors' report. They're not pretending their evidence is strong; they're just not prepared to accept the evidence of Britain, America and France.

HOBSON: The BBC's Daniel Sandford in Moscow, thank you so much.

SANDFORD: You're welcome, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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