Russia has received material evidence from Syria claiming to show that a chemical weapons attack last month was perpetrated by rebels rather than regime forces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.
Lavrov told Russian news agencies that his government will present the evidence to the U.N. Security Council, but he did not comment on the nature of the evidence, nor did he specify when it would be disclosed.
The introduction of new evidence may complicate discussions on a Security Council resolution that would require Syria to immediately disclose the whereabouts of its chemical weapons stocks. Under the plan, drafted jointly by the U.S. and Russia, the weapons would then be destroyed, with the aim of completing the operation by 2014.
Chemical weapons experts say that cataloging, relocating and destroying chemical weapons will be exceptionally difficult while Syria is in a full-fledged civil war, but most agree that a successful operation is possible.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that he would hand over the country's stockpile of chemical weapons to whoever was willing to take them.
Maintaining that his government was not responsible for the attack, he added that he would dispose of the arsenal, but that it could take about a year and would cost $1 billion.
"I think it is very complicated operation technically and it needs a lot of money," Assad said.
Diplomats from the five permanent Security Council nations launched negotiations over the implementation of the disposal plan on Tuesday.
Lavrov's deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, broke the news of Syria's apparent evidence following meetings with Assad and Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in Damascus on Wednesday. Ryabkov told ITAR-Tass, a Russian state-owned news agency, that Syria had presented material showing "rebels participating in the chemical attack."
He added that his government had not come to any conclusions yet.
The Syrian government, along with its chief ally, Russia, is attempting to debunk a U.N. report released earlier this week that confirmed the use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on the Damascus suburbs and implied government involvement.
President Barack Obama has used the attack as a basis for proposing a U.S.-led military strike on regime targets, but the strike has been put on the back burner while diplomats pursue a solution to the chemical weapons issue.
The chemical weapons removal plan is viewed as a last-ditch effort to avoid U.S. military intervention, which Russia hopes to deter and which has been met with bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress.
Assad warned against a U.S. strike once again Wednesday as he received a U.S. delegation of former members of Congress and antiwar activists, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
"Policies adopted by the American administration that are based on launching wars, intervening in other countries' affairs and imposing hegemony on people do not achieve the interests of American people and contradicts with their values and principles," SANA, the official Syrian news agency, quoted Assad telling the U.S. delegation.
Though the intention of the U.N. investigation was not to assign guilt to either party, analysis of the chemical-loaded rockets’ trajectory contained within the report points the finger at Assad's forces.
New York-based Human Rights Watch released its analysis of the U.N. report on Tuesday, noting that the rockets originated northwest of the attack site, where Syrian military bases are situated.
"Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible," said Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for Human Rights Watch. He added, however, that the evidence was "not conclusive."
The U.S., U.K. and France have all stated that the report confirms government forces were behind the poison gas attack in August, which killed over 1,400 people.
Russia has repeatedly trashed the U.N. chemical weapons investigators' findings. On Wednesday, Ryabkov called the U.N. report “distorted” and “one-sided” and said his government would closely analyze the new evidence that Damascus has turned over.
"We are inclined to treat with great seriousness the material from the Syrian side about the involvement of the rebels in the chemical attack of Aug. 21," Ryabkov said, according to ITAR-Tass.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who met with Russia's Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday, denounced Russia's accusations that the U.N. had made a preconceived judgment.
"I don't think anybody can call into question inspectors that have been appointed by the U.N.," Fabius said from Paris.
Though the U.N. inspectors have said their investigation of the Damascus attack sites is complete, the team's chief inspector announced Wednesday that his team would return to Syria "within weeks" to conduct further tests.
Ake Sellstrom told the Associated Press that the team will evaluate "allegations of chemical weapons use from both sides, but perhaps mainly from the Syrian government's side." Sellstrom did not say which sites deserved additional investigating.
The Syrian government has requested that the U.N. conduct a formal investigation of Khan al-Assal, a suburb of the northern city of Aleppo, where 30 people were killed in an alleged chemical attack on March 19. The two sides have swapped accusations over the incident.
Syria's permanent representative to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, has reiterated this request to the U.N. General Assembly.
Meanwhile, fighting creeps ever closer to the heart of Damascus, which has remained insulated from the conflict for most of its two-and-a-half-year duration.
Activists said Wednesday that Assad's air force hit the neighborhood of Berze, a northeastern part of central Damascus, where rebels are trying to push farther into the city. While Assad retains his control over most of the capital, several key Damascus suburbs have slipped from his grip.
With wire services