MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said he has not ruled out backing a U.S.-led military operation in Syria if the Kremlin gets concrete proof than an alleged chemical attack on civilians was committed by Bashar Assad’s government.
“I don’t rule this out,” Putin said during a televised interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press. “But I want to draw your attention to one absolutely principled issue: In accordance with the current international law, a sanction to use arms against a sovereign state can be given only by the U.N. Security Council.”
The Obama administration is engaged in a lobbying effort to persuade Congress to back a U.S. strike on Syria without U.N. approval. Late Tuesday, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on language authorizing U.S. military action against Syria, while ruling out the commitment of U.S. ground forces and limiting the window for an attack to 90 days. A committee vote could come as early as Wednesday.
Putin's interview was recorded Tuesday at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow, according to the official Kremlin website that posted it Wednesday morning.
The Russian president reiterated that the Kremlin was not impressed with the data presented by Washington on the alleged chemical attack of civilians in a Damascus suburb last month. He said video of murdered children was “horrible” but not proof of the Assad regime’s involvement.
“This footage doesn’t provide answers to the questions I myself put now,” he said. “There is an opinion that [the video] was compiled by the same rebels who, as we know and the U.S. administration recognizes, are connected with Al Qaeda and have always been notorious for their special cruelty.”
Putin maintained that it is unreasonable to think that the Assad regime would resort to chemical weapons as his army held the upper hand on the rebels in the more than two-year civil war, as some accounts have portrayed.
“We think that for the regular armed forces, which are on the attack today and in some places they have surrounded the so-called rebels and are finishing them off, in fact it is totally absurd to use prohibited chemical weapons knowing full well that it could be a pretext to take sanctions against them, including the use of force,” Putin said.
Putin called the use of weapons of mass destruction a crime and said that Russia “will take a principled position” once it gets “objective, precise data as to who committed these crimes.”
“If it is established that means of mass destruction are used by [Syrian] rebels, what will the United States do with the rebels?” Putin said. “What will the sponsors do with the rebels? Will they stop arms supplies? Will they launch combat activities against them?”
Putin said he will be convinced only by “a deep, detailed study of the issue and the real presence of evidence that could clearly prove who used what [weapons]."
“After that we will be ready to act in a most resolute and serious way,” he said. He did not say what actions he is considering.
In the meantime, Russia will continue to supply the Assad regime with arms, Putin said.
“We are doing it, and we proceed from the notion that we are cooperating with the legitimate government and are not violating any norms of international law and any of our commitments,” Putin said. “And we regret very much that the [U.S.] supplies to the rebels have been going on in full volume and from the first steps of this armed conflict.”
Putin threatened that Russia may soon go ahead and fulfill a contract to supply Assad with advanced S-300 antiaircraft systems, which, he said, are in some ways better than Patriot missiles.
“We have supplied some components for S-300s, but the supplies have not been completed as we suspended them,” Putin said. “But if we see that some steps are taken connected with violation of current international norms, we will think what we should do in the future including supplies of such powerful weapons to various regions of the world."The Russian president also admitted that he was disappointed by Obama’s cancellation of his planned visit to Moscow this month.
“I would like the U.S. president to visit Moscow so we could have a chance to talk, to discuss the accumulated questions,” Putin said. “But I don’t see any special catastrophe in [the cancellation]. ... We understand that on some issues the Russian position causes the U.S. administration some irritation. I think in reality it would be good not to get irritated but gain some patience together and work on a search for resolutions.”