London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Russian president Vladimir Putin warned against international intervention in Syria in an interview broadcast on Wednesday, saying that plans for punitive action against the Syrian government could only be justified with UN backing.
Speaking during an interview with a Russian TV station and the Associated Press News Agency, Putin warned that action against Syria without UN Security Council authorization would constitute “an aggression.” He added that Russian backing for international action against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, which has been accused of carrying out a sarin gas attack in Damascus in August, would require proof that went “beyond doubt.”
In the interview, released on Wednesday, Putin said: “If there are data that the chemical weapons have been used, and used specifically by the regular army, this evidence should be submitted to the UN Security Council…And it ought to be convincing. It shouldn’t be based on some rumors and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping, some conversations and things like that.”
Putin’s interview comes in the run-up to this week’s meeting of the G20 in the Russian city of St Petersburg, which is expected to be dominated by discussions of the on-going fighting in Syria, and US plans for punitive strikes against its government.
Putin has previously dismissed the evidence released so far by western governments that they say demonstrate the Syrian government’s responsibility for the attack in eastern Damascus on August 21, which reportedly killed hundreds of civilians.
During the latest interview, Putin said that the allegations that the Syrian government was responsible were “ludicrous,” given the risks it posed of triggering external intervention and its recent military successes against the various rebel groups battling to bring it down.
Although the interview marks the first instance of an admission by Putin that the UN could authorize the use of force against Syria, it remains unclear if Putin’s latest comments represent a change in the Russia position on the conflict, which had previously been steadfastly against any external intervention, especially by the US or European states.
By stating that UN authorization would require incontrovertible proof of the use of chemical weapons, Putin also introduced a very strict criteria for authorization, which Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would hold a great deal of influence over deciding.
As for a possible Russian response if the US acts without UN approval, Putin said that it was “too early” to speculate, but added that Russia may review its decision not to deliver advanced S300 air-defense systems to foreign states, a possible reference to Iran. Russia has to date not supplied the system to either Syria or Iran, after intense pressure from the US and Israel.
Elsewhere, in Washington DC, the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee will debate on Wednesday the contents of a congressional resolution authorizing President Obama to use military force against the Syrian government in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Members of the committee discussed and amended the resolution on Tuesday, after Obama won backing from party leaders in the House of Representatives for his proposals for punitive strikes against Assad’s government.
The resolution authorizes the “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria” in order to deter the further use of chemical weapons, and was amended to exclude the deployment of ground troops in any operation. It also imposes a time limit of 60 days on any operation, with the possibility of a 30 day extension.
The resolution will be debated and voted on by the full US Congress after its return from summer recess on September 9.
Despite winning the approval of leaders in Congress, it remains unknown if the resolution will be approved by rank-and-file legislators, in the face of widespread scepticism among the US public about US involvement in the conflict in Syria.