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Putin warns West against unilateral action in Syria
Putin says he would support strikes only if it is proven Assad used chemical weapons against civilians
September 4, 20139:00AM ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the West against taking unilateral action in Syria, but says Moscow "doesn't exclude" supporting a U.N. resolution on punitive military strikes if it is proved that Damascus used chemical weapons against its own people, according to a Tuesday interview.
Putin said an endorsement from his government to take action would require "convincing" evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons against citizens, adding that the currently available evidence does not meet this criteria.
Putin spoke in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday to The Associated Press and Russian state television at his residence outside Moscow.
It was the only one he granted prior to the summit of G-20 nations in St. Petersburg, which opens Thursday.
Putin also said Wednesday that the U.S. has no right to "legitimize aggression" against Syria as U.S. President Barack Obama warned that failure to act would risk further attacks in the war-torn country.
The G-20 summit was supposed to concentrate on the global economy but now appears likely to be dominated by the international crisis over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria's civil war.
Putin said it would not make sense for Assad's forces to have used chemical weapons at a time when they were in the ascendency in the conflict.
"From our viewpoint, it seems absolutely absurd that the armed forces, the regular armed forces, which are on the offensive today and in some areas have encircled the so-called rebels and are finishing them off, that in these conditions they would start using forbidden chemical weapons while realizing quite well that it could serve as a pretext for applying sanctions against them, including the use of force," Putin said in the interview, released Wednesday.
Figures vary regarding the alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, with the U.S. government saying that 1,429 people were killed by poison gas in the attack, and aid agencies putting that number at closer to 355.
Assad's government has blamed the attack on the rebels, and a U.N. inspection team that examined the attack sites near Damascus is awaiting lab results on soil and tissue samples.
"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 U.N. Security Council," Putin added.
"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."
He also cited experts who believed that the current evidence "doesn't look convincing," and raised the possibility that the armed opposition had "conducted a premeditated provocative action trying to give their sponsors a pretext for military intervention."
Putin compared the evidence presented by the U.S. administration so far to false data used by the George W. Bush administration to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"All these arguments turned out to be untenable, but they were used to launch a military action, which many in the U.S. called a mistake. Did we forget about that?" he said.
UN action not excluded
In the interview, Putin said he did not "exclude" the possibility of the use of force by foreign countries against Syria, but only if there was enough evidence provided to the U.N. and if the Security Council sanctioned such an action.
If there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them, Russia "will be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way," Putin said.
He strongly cautioned the U.S. against launching military action without U.N. approval, however, saying it would represent an aggression.
Asked what kind of evidence on chemical weapons use would convince Russia, Putin said "it should be a deep and specific probe containing evidence that would be obvious and prove beyond doubt who did it and what means were used."
Putin also said Russia has provided some components of the S-300 air defence missile system to Syria but that the delivery had not been completed.
He said that the process remained suspended "for now."
US considers Syria action
Meanwhile, U.S. national security officials will hold a series of public and private hearings Wednesday with members of the House of Representatives regarding the authorization of the use of military force against Syria.
The meetings come after leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday that they had reached an agreement on a draft authorization, paving the way for a vote by the committee on Wednesday.
Among other provisions, the draft, which was obtained by Al Jazeera, sets a 60-day limit on military action in Syria, with a possibility for a single 30-day extension subject to conditions.
The deal reached by Senator Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the panel, and Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican, includes a provision banning any use of U.S. armed forces on the ground.
If the document is approved by the committee Wednesday, it will then be sent to the full Senate for a vote after members return from their August recess on Sept. 9.
Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave evidence to the committee, where they assured the committee that there was "zero intention" of putting troops on the ground.
The draft resolution requires Obama to consult Congress and submit a strategy for negotiating a political settlement to the Senate and House of Representatives foreign relations panel, including a review of all forms of assistance to the rebels fighting to oust Assad.
Menendez said that the authorization remained "narrow and focused" and "limited in time."