Russia continues to insist that there is no conclusive proof that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons that killed some 1,400 civilians earlier this month; an attack that has sparked worldwide condemnation and crossed the “red-line” US President Barack Obama personally drew a year ago, prompting the military contingency plans pending Congressional approval.
“If there truly is top secret information available, the veil should be lifted. This is a question of war and peace. To continue this game of secrecy is simply inappropriate,” the television network Russia Today quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.
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“What our American, British and French partners have shown us before – as well as now – does not convince us at all. There are no supporting facts, there is only repetitive talk in the vein of 'we know for sure.' And when we ask for further clarification, we receive the following response: 'You are aware that this is classified information, therefore we cannot show it to you.' So there are still no facts."
Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US is convinced that Assad used sarin nerve gas, the first time the US has named the chemical agent they believe was involved.
Lavrov’s comments are just the latest point-counterpoint between American and Russian leaders over events in Syria. Moscow has become Syria’s most outspoken ally and weapons supplier as well as the loudest voice against any potential American attack.
“Russia is sticking to its guns,” James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told The Media Line. “The weakening of the European position because of the vote in the British parliament (against an attack) and President Obama’s delay has emboldened the Russian position and made them more determined in the rightness of their cause.”
The Syrian issue has become the latest battleground between the United States and Russia. Russia has allied itself with Syria, Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah against the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar. It is an attempt, some analysts say, for Russia to continue to remain relevant in today’s world.
“The Middle East is the stage for the rest of the world in the global struggle,” Tzvi Magen, an expert on Russia at the Institute for National and Strategic Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line. “If Syria falls, the entire pro-Russia axis falls and Russia will have no power in the entire region.”
There are also practical considerations. Russia has a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus – the only one outside of the former Soviet Union – which is used for repair and replenishment for the Soviet fleet in the region. Perhaps more important, Russia has been Syria’s primary source of arms, having provided, among other armament, advanced fighter jets and sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles called Yakhonts. In July, an Israeli air strike targeted a warehouse near the port city of Latakia where the Yakhonts were believed to be stored.
Tensions between the US and Russia escalated after Russia offered former American spy agency contractor Edward Snowden temporary asylum. Obama cancelled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was scheduled to be held in advance of this week’s G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, where one of the main issues on the agenda will be Syria.
Russia would like to see a diplomatic solution rather than a military one. Tzvi Magen of the INSS says Russia wants an international conference that would lead to an interim government made up of both Assad supporters and rebels that would lay the groundwork for elections.
That, however, seems unlikely. Assad himself is unrepentant, threatening to respond to “any external aggression.” Some analysts predict that the US will launch a limited strike on Syria’s chemical weapons capability but is not pressing for regime change. They estimate that as long as Assad remains in power, Russian opposition will not go beyond angry words.
Article written by Linda Gradstein
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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