Putin urges caution in Syria in New York Times op-ed

Russian leader claims US strike in Syria would trigger new wave of terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a press conference at the end of the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg.
2013 AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an op-ed article published by the New York Times Wednesday, said a potential strike by the United States against Syria would increase violence in the Middle East and destabilize the global system of international law and order.

The Russian leader also said he has no doubt poisonous gas was used in Syria, referencing the Aug. 21 chemical attack that the U.S. says killed over 1,000 Syrian civilians on Aug. 21.

“But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists,” Putin wrote in the op-ed.

Putin said the U.S.'s proposed military action would "unleash a new wave of terrorism."

Citing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Putin said U.S. military intervention in foreign countries had become customary -- something he called alarming and harmful to America’s long-term interests. He also said the U.S. is becoming the symbol of “brute force,” instead of a model for democracy.

Putin’s op-ed appeared a day after U.S. President Barack Obama said a military strike must remain an option to put muscle behind Russia's plan to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies," Obama said in a speech from the White House Tuesday.

On Thursday, however, Syrian rebel leaders released a video statement rejecting Russia's plan, according to Reuters.

Russia and Syria have historical and economic ties, and Moscow has been criticized by the West for remaining one of Damascus' most stalwart allies throughout the conflict. Russia has -- along with China -- vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria in the past two years.

International affairs observers said Obama's speech, in which he asked Congress to delay a vote on air strikes in Syria while also making a case for intervention if Putin's proposal fails, gave him room to maneuver, and pins on Russia a bulk of the responsibility to address allegations that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad carried out the chemical weapons attack.

"You'll notice he didn't lay down any specific conditions for the resolution. He didn't say what would constitute success or failure. He's trying to leave himself some flexibility ... for creative diplomacy," Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Management and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Al Jazeera.

If Putin is unsuccessful in his pledge to dismantle Damascus' chemical arsenal, that may add fuel to Obama's proposed military action in Syria.

"This gives (the U.S.) the opportunity to put to the test Assad and his Russian friends. If they prove themselves to be duplicitous then that will be a stronger argument for Obama to either act on his own or receive more support (from) Congress and the American people," James Jeffrey, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told Al Jazeera.

Obama also argued Tuesday that acting against Syria was in the interest of U.S. national security. Inaction in Syria, the president warned, could potentially embolden Assad to use chemical weapons again. Doing nothing could also endanger U.S. allies including Turkey and Israel, while potentially emboldening Iran, he said.

In what he qualified as his message "to the American people," Putin also disagreed with Obama’s reference to American exceptionalism during his Tuesday evening speech.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever their motivation,” Putin said.

In response to Putin's op-ed, a senior White House official told CNN's Jake Tapper “Putin is now fully invested in Syria’s CW (chemical weapons) disarmament."

The op-ed also provoked a strong response from Putin's critics, with Garry Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and chariman of the Human Rights Foundation, tweeting his criticism of both the president, and the decision to print the article.

Putin's article praised the United Nations for providing the stability of international relations for decades. And he warned that if the U.S. were to use force against Syrian without U.N. Security Council approval, the move would constitute an act of aggression and undermine the international organization.

Roxana Saberi contributed to this report

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