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21 Sep, 2013 16:14

Russia may change stance on Syria if Assad ‘cheats’ - Kremlin

Moscow could change its position on Syria if it is discovered that Damascus is “cheating,” Kremlin Administration Chief Sergey Ivanov said on Saturday.

I’m talking now theoretically and hypothetically, but if Russia becomes sure that [President] Assad, for example, is cheating, we might change our position. But so far we don’t have such evidence,” Ivanov said.

As the UN Security Council (UNSC) prepares a resolution that would see the implementation of a plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, the chief of the Kremlin administration called on UNSC members to base the resolution “on a strategic long-term vision, not momentary concerns.”

Russia is not going to use its veto right at the UN Security Council “only on principle,” Ivanov said. If it becomes clear and absolutely proved who was behind the chemical weapons use, it will become an entirely different story.

But it must be proved. And while it is not so, we have the same position,” he said. 

Russia and China – two of the five UNSC permanent members holding veto power - have already used it three times to block Western resolutions with potential backdoors for direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Global Strategic Review conference in Stockholm, Ivanov also questioned how the world would respond if it turned out that both Damascus and the Syrian opposition had deployed chemical weapons.

Just imagine what the international community would do then,” the head of the Russian presidential administration said.

He then mentioned the August 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb. The official pointed out that investigating already expertly confirmed facts about the use of sarin nerve gas in Syria must be conducted by the UN in a thorough manner. As for establishing the culprits of the atrocities, “it would require painstaking work,” Ivanov said.

Since, as we believe, this act was a massive provocation, finding the truth won’t be easy,” he acknowledged, urging the UN experts to return to Syria as soon as possible to investigate the use of chemical weapons.

The deadly chemical attack last month sparked outrage among the international community, with many politicians blaming the Syrian regime for the attack – even though there has so far been no concrete evidence proving that.

US President Barack Obama was pushing for a military strike against the Assad government in response to the attack. As the American Congress was preparing to vote on whether to authorize such a military action, Moscow proposed that Damascus should put its chemical stockpile under international control and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The initiative was accepted by the Syrian government and Washington, and then discussed in detail by Russian and American foreign ministers in Geneva. 

Under the deal reached between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry, Damascus will hand over its chemical weapons for destruction by mid-2014. Bashar Assad said earlier in the week that the plan will cost around $1 billion and take about a year to complete.

According to Ivanov, the exact dates and cost of the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons will be clarified in about two or three months. “However, no one can currently answer this question specifically," he added.

He went on to say that even if the world manages to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, it does not mean that the ongoing conflict in the country will end. Still, Ivanov added, fulfilling the first task is “a very positive result” reached though diplomacy.

Damascus has already begun submitting information on its arms to the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which shows that Assad is keeping his word, the Russian official observed.

Opposition to lose interest in peace talks if military strike takes place 

Russia has been adamant about the necessity of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, pushing the Syrian government to the negotiation table.

Russia has done its part on the Russian-American initiative of May 7. We’ve secured Damascus’ commitment to send a delegation to Geneva conference.  Our American partners have so far failed to do the same in their talks with the [Syrian] opposition,” Ivanov said.

According to Ivanov, the Syrian opposition has problems with getting to the negotiating table.

It is very difficult to define the opposition now. There are so many splintered groups and one of the predominant ones is of course Al-Qaeda,” Ivanov said. “The claims that cruise missile strikes would help advance the peace process are not only ridiculous, they are irresponsible,” he warned.

In the event of military intervention in Syria, the opposition, which is already against the planned peace conference, will lose any interest in negotiations, in hopes that the US will simply bomb the regime into the ground – as it did in Libya,” Ivanov said, pointing out that opposition groups are being deployed closer to Damascus so that an assault on the Syrian capital could be coordinated with the US strikes.

I don’t need to explain how high the death toll would be, especially among the civilians,” Ivanov said.

Escalating conflict in Syria will have unpredictable consequences,” the head of the administration stressed, particularly underlining that Christians are now being killed and expelled from Syria by the rebel militants, who also execute Christian clergy and attack ancient Christian monasteries.

Ivanov explained that Russia has always supported the Arab nations’ aspiration for change, for freedom and better life, but he doubted such transition could be completed “overnight”.

Perhaps they won’t be able to replicate the European model at all,” he said.