Has Putin changed his tune on Syria?

In an interview on Tuesday night, President Putin said he did not rule out supporting a UN Security Council resolution backing military action in Syria it it were proved that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. This has led to speculation about a softening of Russia's position.

Putin was interviewed by the Associated Press and the Russian Channel 1. It was a wide-ranging interview – not just about Syria – and was presumably intended to set the scene for the coming G20 summit. 

AP’s report of the interview is basically a summary with quotes from Putin but ITAR-TASS has what appears to be a full transcript in Russian. The only transcript that I can find in English is one published by Russia Today*. 

Putin began by expressing his customary scepticism about the chemical attacks:

“We can’t say for sure what happened. We think we should at least wait for the UN inspectors to give their report. We don’t have any evidence showing that it was the regular army of the Syrian government that used those chemicals. We don’t even know at this point if those were chemical weapons or just some hazardous chemicals).”

While claiming that “it would be totally absurd” for government forces to have used chemical weapons, given the military situation around Damascus on August 21, he stopped short of directly accusing rebel fighters of using them (though that does appear to be the implication).

This might, however, be viewed as a small backtrack from Putin’s statement last Friday that the chemical attacks near Damascus were "nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States."

In the interview, AP's reporter asked Putin:

“What would Russia’s position be if you became convinced that the chemical attack was launched by the Syrian government? Would you agree to military action?”

Putin replied: 

“I won’t rule this out. But let me draw your attention to one absolutely essential thing (principle circumstance). Under international law the only body that can authorise using weapons against a sovereign state is the UN Security Council. Any other reasons and methods to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state are unacceptable and they can be seen as nothing but aggression.”

He went on to say “We firmly believe that the use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime” – and he could scarcely say otherwise since Russia is a party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons. 

So, to summarise Putin’s position, it appears that he is willing to contemplate action on chemical weapons in Syria, but only through the Security Council but only if satisfied by evidence of their use, and by whom.

This might seem like a small shift, aimed at tempting the US back to the Security Council, but it all hinges on what evidence would be needed to satisfy Putin. While calling on people not to jump to conclusions, he has already said it’s absurd to suppose the Syrian regime did it; in his interview he casts doubt on video evidence about casualties and dismisses intelligence intercepts of conversations as hearsay. That really leaves only the UN inspectors whose brief, as we know, does not include determining who was responsible.

Since the Syrian conflict began, Putin has been Assad’s most important international supporter (in the interview he claims otherwise: “We are not defending the current Syrian government …We are defending the principles and norms of international law.”) and his latest remarks should probably be judged in that context: he doesn’t want the US to go ahead with airstrikes.

Until now, Russia has successfully used its veto, or the threat of it, to block any serious action over Syria in the Security Council. Following the chemical attacks in August, though, that has pushed the US in the opposite direction. Obama’s frustrations with the Security Council have led him to propose independent action. 

So it’s likely that Putin’s more conciliatory tone, if not the substance, is intended to revive hopes of some UN-based solution. That probably won’t persuade Obama but it will encourage his critics – those like the International Crisis Group who favour “reaching out” to Russia and Iran over Syria. 

Apart from doing that, and challenging every piece of evidence, Russia has very little leverage at the moment, though there is still the Russian threat to supply Syria with fighter jets and S-300 missile defence systems. The contract, originally agreed in 2007, is once again on hold but Putin suggested in his interview that deliveries might be completed if “steps are taken that violate the existing international norms” (i.e US intervention in Syria without UN approval) and Russia would also reconsider “supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain [other] regions of the world". AP’s report interprets this as “a veiled threat to revive a contract for the delivery of the S-300s to Iran, which Russia cancelled a few years ago under strong U.S. and Israeli pressure”.

Looking a bit further ahead, though, the Security Council – and hence Putin – could return to centre stage when the inspectors report back. A lot depends on the timing. According to today’s Guardian, the inspectors may not be ready for another two to three weeks – which raises the prospect that US airstrikes could have gone ahead by then.

On the other hand, if the decision from the US Congress is delayed, or or if Obama loses the vote (or prematurely withdraws his request to Congress for lack of support), the Security Council will be back in the spotlight, but on Russia's terms.
Cautionary note: Russia Today is a propaganda outfit but I have compared its transcript with the Russian version from ITAR-TASS and, allowing for the quirks of Google Translate, they seem identical. I can also see no political reason for Russia Today to misrepresent what Putin said. On this occasion, therefore, I think it can be relied upon as a source.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 5 September 2013