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As world prepares to act on Syria, Russia scrambles to apply brake

Russia urged Western officials to wait for the facts about last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, but made clear it would not defend the regime with force.

Russia feels blindsided by what it perceives as a senseless Western rush to take military action against Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in SyriaRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an “emergency” press conference in Moscow today.

Officials should not act before the facts about last week’s alleged nerve gas attack near Damascus have been verified, he said, warning that if Western “hysteria” leads to military intervention, it will produce wider destabilization in the Middle East, and intensify the bloodshed in Syria. 

Lavrov made clear, as he has in the past, that Russia has neither the capability nor the desire to take any direct action to help Mr. Assad, even if the Kremlin does sincerely doubt that the Syrian regime is responsible for the attack.

But the foreign minister did suggest that there could be dire consequences for the already-troubled US-Russia relationship.

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“We have no plans to go to war [over this], but we hope that others will think carefully about their own long-term interests,” he said.

Although Lavrov said nothing new, there was a discernibly fresh tone of diplomatic desperation that suggests Moscow has lost hope that a US-led military intervention in Syria can be forestalled, and is now preparing for a changed world in which there will no longer be even a semblance of US-Russian cooperation on Middle Eastern issues like the jointly brokered Geneva peace conference to bring together both sides in the Syrian conflict.

On Monday the Moscow air was thick with suspicion and recrimination, topped off with passionate warnings that the West may ignore lessons of recent history at its peril.

“The message is that if the US launches a military intervention into Syria’s civil war, Russia will be as negative as possible,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Russia won’t try to stop it, but will do nothing to help legitimize it,” he says. 

That differs from previous episodes, such as the 1999 Kosovo war, which is now being cited as a possible precedent for US action against Syria. Russia opposed the 78-day war against its ally Serbia, but eventually played a key diplomatic role in convincing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate.

It also suggests the West will face a very different Moscow than it did during NATO’s intervention in Libya two years ago, where Russia abstained on a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilian lives. 

“There is a general perception here that any Western-led action in Syria will turn into another long-running mess, and there will be no turning to Moscow for diplomatic help in solving it this time,” says Mr. Lukyanov. 

“Indeed, this might have the effect of drawing Russia closer to Iran. Moscow may find ways, through different channels, to support Iran, knowing that Iran will never stop helping Assad,” he adds.

Lavrov argued that the growing conviction in the US that Assad is guilty of using chemical weapons is regarded in Moscow as a rush-to-judgement that smacks of the same sort of folly that led to disastrous US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, and the more recent NATO intervention in Libya. 

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“Look at what’s happening in Libya today. The central government does not control vast areas of the country, while the militants have taken their weapons and spread unrest around the region, to places such as Mali, where they have fortunately been rebuffed,” Lavrov said.

“Look what’s happening in Iraq. Hundreds are killed every day by terrorist attacks. Nothing has been solved there,” he said.

Lavrov added that he told US counterpart John Kerry in a telephone conversation yesterday that Moscow continues to see no alternative to the Geneva-2 peace conference being prepared by the US and Russia – which would bring representatives of the Assad regime and the rebels face-to-face to hammer out a settlement – and reiterated his belief that the fresh reports of nerve gas use in Syria might be a “prepared provocation” aimed at derailing the planned negotiations.

“Official Washington, London and Paris say they have incontrovertible evidence that the Syrian government is behind the chemical attack in Damascus, but they have not yet presented this evidence. Yet, they keep saying that the ‘red line’ has been crossed,” Lavrov said.

“It only works to undermine the Geneva peace process. Now, although there is no proof at all [of Assad’s guilt], we see this powerful force being assembled near Syria’s borders. They [the West] are readying their ships and planes for an attack…. This is a huge mistake. It will not lead to peace but just to an increase in bloodshed,” he said.

Lavrov added that if the US chooses to go to war without an enabling resolution from the UN Security Council – as it did in Kosovo and Iraq – it will be an illegal action that can only stoke the forces of anarchy that are already tearing the Middle East apart.

“To us, it looks as though [George W.] Bush, [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld never left the White House,” says Alexei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma’s international affairs committee.

“It’s basically the same policy, as if US leaders had learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the past decade. They want to topple foreign leaders they regard as adversaries, without even making the most basic calculations of the consequences. An intervention in Syria will only enlarge the area of instability in the Middle East and expand the scope of terrorist activity. I am at a complete loss to understand what the US thinks it is doing,” he says.