- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2013

Russia, a longtime ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, Friday rejected new U.S. assertions that the regime had crossed President Obama’s “red line” by deploying chemical weapons against rebels in the country’s bloody civil war.

Yuri Ushakov, a onetime ambassador to the United States and now a senior foreign policy adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said officials in Moscow remain unconvinced of the charges despite a briefing on the evidence from U.S. officials.

“I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing,” Mr. Ushakov told reporters in Moscow Friday, just a day after the White House said it had confirmed the regime’s use of sarin gas.

“It would be hard even to call them facts.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin are to meet next week at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. U.S. officials say their conclusion on the use of chemical weapons opens the way for a much broader direct support of Syrian rebels, including potential arms shipments.

But Mr. Ushakov said the U.S. charges could imperil a planned international conference that Moscow and Washington have been trying to organize to strike a deal to end the fighting.

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If the United States begins arming the rebels fighters, who have suffered a number of reverses on the battlefield in recent days, “it will not make organizing the international conference easier,” Mr. Ushakov warned.

Mr. Obama did get support Friday from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who will play host to next week’s G-8 summit.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in London, Mr. Cameron said his nation’s intelligence reports also show that Mr. Assad’s forces had used agents such as sarin gas in the fighting.

“We share their view that, as we put it, growing levels of information about chemical weapons used by the regime and no firm evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the opposition,” Mr. Cameron said. “I welcome this candid assessment by the Americans.”

That assessment, put forth by the White House late Thursday, has triggered a major shift in U.S. toward the Syrian civil war, which has been raging for more than two years and has claimed the lives of more than 92,000 people, according to the most recent UN estimates.

President Obama reportedly has decided to send arms directly to Syrian rebel forces, in addition to ramping up efforts to supply the opposition with communications equipment and medical supplies. The U.S. and its allies also may begin to train the rebel forces.

A no-fly zone over Syria is still on the table, though White House officials signaled Thursday that such a step is unlikely, at least in the short term.

Mr. Cameron said the determination only increased the pressure on outside powers to act to curb the conflict.

“What are we going to do about the fact that in our world today there is a dictatorial and brutal leader who is using chemical weapons under our noses against his own people?” Mr. Cameron asked.

In Syria, officials in the Assad government denounced the new American claims on chemical weapons use as a “caravan of lies,” repeating claims that it was factions in the rebel army — not the government — who have deployed the sarin gas.

The Obama administration “relied on fabricated information in order to hold the Syrian government responsible for using these weapons, despite a series of statements that confirmed that terrorist groups in Syria have used chemical weapons,” according to a statement released by the Syrian foreign ministry.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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