MOSCOW — Russia is working closely with the Syrian government to ensure that its arsenal of chemical weapons remains under firm control and has won promises that the weapons of mass destruction will not be used or moved, Moscow’s point man on Syria told the Associated Press on Thursday.
The potential use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has put Russia, the Syrian regime’s steadfast ally, in a rare point of agreement with the United States, which has pressured Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in the face of an armed uprising.
Russia has shielded Assad’s regime from U.N. sanctions and continued to provide it with weapons throughout the 18-month conflict, which activists estimate has killed more than 20,000 people. In July, Syria first acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons by threatening to use them if foreign states tried to interfere militarily.
President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States might have to intervene in Syria if the government there used or moved chemical weapons. Obama also warned of the threat of such weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of rebels fighting the government or militant groups aiding either side.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia is in full agreement with the Americans on the need to prevent Assad’s government from using the weapons or allowing them to slip out from under its control.
“We have guarantees from the Syrian government that it will not take any steps involving chemical weapons,” the Russian diplomat said. “And I want to reiterate that on this issue we will restrain it in all ways possible and work toward the goal of preventing such things from happening.”
He said the Foreign Ministry was in constant contact with U.S. officials, pointing to a recent visit by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Russia is counting on the United States and others to use their influence with opposition forces to prevent the chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, Gatilov said.
“As we all know, among the opposition are terrorist elements, in particular belonging to al-Qaida,” he said. “Of course, if all of a sudden, as a result of some actions, these weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists who could take a totally irresponsible attitude toward them, this would be a very serious development.”
A senior Syrian government official, in Moscow for talks on Tuesday, said Obama’s warning indicated that the West was looking for a pretext to intervene in Syria. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil drew a comparison with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which the Bush administration justified by claiming, falsely as it turned out, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian situation is different, Gatilov noted, because Syria has chemical weapons. After the Assad regime’s announcement in July, Russia pointedly reminded Syria that it had ratified a global convention banning the use of chemical weapons.
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