/ 4 September 2013

Putin hasn’t ruled out Syria strike

Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Russian president Vladimir Putin. (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia had not ruled out approving a military operation in Syria if clear evidence showed Damascus had carried out chemical weapons attacks, but said any attack would be illegal without the United Nations’ support.

At an interview in the lead up to the G20 leaders' meeting in St Petersburg, Putin said he expected to hold talks with United States President Barack Obama on the summit sidelines, saying there was much to discuss.

Relations between the US and Russia have fallen to one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War over numerous issues including violence in Syria, where Russia has been President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful protector.

Putin's comments appeared intended to show readiness to retain constructive in US-Russia ties, despite Obama's decision to pull out of a bilateral summit between the leaders.

Obama comes to St Petersburg having secured support from key figures in the US Congress for his call for limited US strikes on Syria.

When asked whether Russia would agree to military action if Damascus were proven to have carried out a chemical weapons attack, Putin answered: "I do not rule it out."

Proof required
However, he also made it clear that Russia is not yet prepared to accept US and European assertions that Assad's forces were behind an August 21 chemical weapons attack that Washington says killed more than 1 400 people.

"We have no data that those chemical substances – it is not yet clear whether it was chemical weapons or simply some harmful chemical substances – were used precisely by the official government army."

Putin said that the burden was on other countries to convince Moscow Assad had used chemical arms. Russia has previously said it suspects rebels were behind the attack to provoke a US military response. He added that there was an "opinion" that al Qaeda-linked rebels were to blame.

Putin said no strikes on Syria could be legal without approval by the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow has a veto that it has repeatedly used to protect Assad.

"According to current international law, only the United Nations Security Council can sanction the use of force against a sovereign state. Any other approaches, means, to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state, are inadmissible," he said, adding that it would amount to aggression.

US may go ahead regardless
The US and France, its main ally on Syria, say they are prepared to launch strikes without a UN Security Council resolution because they believe Moscow would veto any authorisation for force.

A senior Western official said that while Moscow was unlikely to say so in public, there were signs that Russian officials believe Assad was indeed responsible for the chemical weapons attack and it had strained Russian support for him.

Western countries are hoping that once any military strikes are finished, probably over Russia's public objections, Moscow will be more cooperative than in the past in seeking a political solution, the official said.

Foreign ministers will also attend the G20 summit and will meet to discuss Syria. – Reuters