Russia echoed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denial that his forces used chemical weapons last month, in comments coming a day after United Nations inspectors presented evidence that Western governments and human-rights advocates said pointed to the regime in Damascus.
Syria today gave Russia what it said was additional evidence supporting its case, according to Russian state broadcaster RT. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called yesterday for a further inquiry, saying his country has “serious grounds” for thinking that the Aug. 21 attack was a rebel “provocation,” as Assad claims.
The comments underscored the conflicting interests as the UN Security Council attempts to negotiate a resolution mandating that Syria give up its chemical weapons under a U.S.-Russia accord reached in Geneva on Sept. 14. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday that he hopes the council will vote on a resolution early next week.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the information gathered at the scene of the attack by UN chemical-weapons inspectors, who confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin, implicates the Assad regime. The inspectors were barred by their UN mandate from placing blame.
“When you look at the details, the evidence they present, it is inconceivable that anybody other than the regime” used the sarin, Obama said in an interview yesterday with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said during a visit to Damascus today that Russia is “unhappy” about the UN investigation, according to RT.
“We think that report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient, and in any case we would need to learn and know more on what happened beyond and above that incident of Aug. 21,” Ryabkov told RT.
The U.S. considers Russia’s actions more important than its words, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday.
“What matters is what the Russians do to ensure that Syria upholds its commitments, and that Russia upholds its commitment to see this agreement through, which calls for an aggressive timetable in accounting for and securing Assad’s chemical weapons inventory,” Carney said.
With the threat of military action receding, West Texas Intermediate crude fell yesterday to the lowest level in almost four weeks before advancing today on declining inventories. WTI crude for October delivery increased 30 cents to $105.72 a barrel at 10:26 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The U.S., Russia and the other veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council -- France, the U.K, and China -- are attempting to draft a resolution compelling Syria’s implementation of the accord reached in Geneva between Kerry and Lavrov that averted U.S. military strikes.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Lavrov in a phone call yesterday that China hopes the Syrian disarmament accord can be implemented quickly, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Among the questions that complicate drafting the resolution are whether to threaten the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Assad violates the plan to turn over his chemical arsenal.
The five permanent Security Council members discussed a Syria resolution in private yesterday at the U.S. Mission in New York and planned to meet again today.
In addition to confirming the use of sarin, the UN inspectors presented technical details of the attack, including the types of rockets used, their markings, and their trajectories. That evidence clearly pinned the blame on Assad’s regime, according to Human Rights Watch.
“When mapping these trajectories, the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade, situated only a few kilometers north of downtown Damascus and within firing range of the neighborhoods attacked by chemical weapons,” the New York-based group said in an analysis posted yesterday on its website.
Firas Abi Ali, London-based senior manager for Middle East and North Africa country risk at research firm IHS, said in a note to clients that “there is no evidence that the opposition has the capability to launch multiple, simultaneous chemical weapons attacks in both the east and west of Damascus as described by the UN inspectors’ report.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said before briefing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that the details make clear “it really was the Assad regime that committed this attack,” which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people in what may be the worst atrocity of the 2 1/2 year Syrian civil war.
Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the committee, said Russia has now committed itself to getting Assad to live up to the deal negotiated with the U.S.
“If there are meaningful violations of the agreement, I think that puts the Russians in a tough position,” he said.
Any failure by Russia to help enforce the agreement is likely to prompt Congress to take up an authorization for the use of U.S. military force against Syria, Menendez said.
“There were a lot of good questions” from senators in the room with Kerry, said Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who voted against the committee’s approval Sept. 4 of a resolution authorizing force. “But I think the administration brought back a pretty good package” from the Geneva negotiations with Russia.
Obama had requested the authorization of force, which faced substantial opposition in Congress, only to put it aside when the Russians proposed the plan to put Assad’s chemical weapons under international control
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Moscow yesterday that he has “no doubts” the Assad regime was behind the Aug. 21 assault. He called Syria’s willingness to give up chemical weapons a “major change,” made possible only because force was threatened.
Lavrov yielded no ground, saying “some of our partners said dictatorially that only the regime could use such weapons, but the truth must be established” through further investigation.
Russian officials have said they suspect the Syrian opposition staged the attack to provoke Western military intervention in the civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed.