Putin May Support Syria Strike If Assad Guilt Proved

Russia will only consider supporting a United Nations resolution authorizing military strikes against the Syrian government if there’s conclusive proof it used chemical weapons, President Vladimir Putin said.

“If we have objective, precise evidence about who carried out this crime, then there will be a reaction,” Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russian state television broadcaster Channel One, a transcript of which was posted on the Kremlin website today. Any information showing that the Syrian army was behind the attack should be submitted to the UN Security Council, he said.

Putin, who today stepped up Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean, has said that it would have been “utter nonsense” for President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces to carry out the assault on the day a team of UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and his troops were making military progress against the rebels. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said there are “multiple indications” that Syrian insurgents staged the attack to provoke a U.S.-led intervention.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a surprise move, decided to seek congressional approval for action against Syria after what the administration says was an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack by government forces that killed more than 1,400 people. The two top Republicans in the House of Representatives said yesterday they would support the request.

Allies Divided

In a sign of divisions among U.S. allies, NATO said it won’t get involved in a military campaign against Syria, confining its role to providing a forum for consultations and defending Turkey against a possible spillover of the civil war, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Sept. 2.

The U.K. parliament last week rejected British Prime Minister David Cameron’s request to authorize strikes on Syria. After indicating military support last week, French President Francois Hollande is under pressure to consult lawmakers in Paris before joining a U.S.-led mission.

Russia, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, has repeatedly blocked resolutions seeking punitive actions against its Soviet-era ally, Syria. A 2 1/2-year uprising in the Middle Eastern country has degenerated into a civil war and killed more than 100,000 people.

Putin’s Certainty

“Putin is certain that the chemical claims can’t be proven and that Syria hasn’t used chemical weapons,” Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh said by phone from Damascus. He reiterated the government’s position that “armed gangs” used those weapons “in a very primitive way.”

Putin’s comments don’t signal a shift in Russia’s position because he doesn’t expect any proof linking Assad’s forces to a chemical attack, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

“What Putin said doesn’t change anything,” Lukyanov said by phone. “Any claims by U.S. or French intelligence services won’t be considered convincing by Russia because of a complete lack of trust.”

The Russian leader said evidence of alleged Syrian government involvement can’t be based on “rumors” or information obtained through eavesdropping of communications by intelligence agencies.

G-20 Summit

Putin, who will host a Group of 20 summit in his hometown of St. Petersburg this week, said he expected to talk with Obama on the sidelines. The Russian president said his opposition to a strike on Syria was based on his determination to uphold international law, with military actions sanctioned by the UN, rather than support for the Syrian government.

Russia will continue providing military supplies under contracts to the Syrian government, which it recognizes as the legitimate authority in the country, Putin said. Russia has halted supplies of the advanced S-300 missile system, which Putin called better than the U.S. Patriot missiles. Deliveries may resume if actions are taken against Syria violating international law, he said.

Russia, which in January held its biggest naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean in more than two decades, is sending three more warships to join its flotilla in the region, Interfax reported today. A missile cruiser, the Moskva, is bound for the eastern Mediterranean after canceling its mission to a port in Cape Verde, an unidentified Russian official was cited as saying. Two destroyers from the country’s Black Sea and Baltic fleets will reinforce the grouping within days, Interfax said.

Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is at the the Syrian port of Tartus, where it maintains a naval resupply facility.

UN Probe

UN inspectors visited the area where the alleged attack took place near Damascus and are awaiting lab results before reporting on the incident. The UN doesn’t have a mandate to determine who used the chemical weapons.

Almost six in 10 Americans oppose the U.S. conducting unilateral missile strikes against Syria, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. The opposition drops to 51 percent if other nations such as the U.K. and France participate. Seventy percent oppose supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels.

Obama arrived in Sweden today on a stop that’s a substitute for a scrapped Moscow meeting with Putin before the G-20 summit. The White House made the scheduling switch after Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to fugitive former security contractor Edward Snowden.

‘Very Interesting’

The U.S. president is a business-like person and a “very interesting interlocutor,” Putin said in the interview, praising his conversations with Obama as “very constructive” and “sufficiently frank.”

Putin said he saw no “catastrophe” in Obama skipping their meeting in the Russian capital as the two countries are in constant contact over a range of issues.

“President Obama hasn’t been elected by the American people to be pleasant for Russia, and your humble servant hasn’t been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either,” Putin said. “We work, we argue about some issues. We are human.”

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