VALDAI, Russia – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he cannot guarantee Syria will surrender its chemical weapons arsenal and suggested that Israel could help ensure the success of the U.S.-Russian deal by surrendering its alleged nuclear weapons.
“I don’t know whether we will manage to persuade” Syrian President Bashar Assad to go along with the plan, Putin said at the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual Russian political forum. “Up to now everything looks as if Syria completely agreed with our plan.… But I can’t say whether we will manage to complete the process by 100%.”
Putin implied that the prospects for peace and chemical weapons disarmament in Syria would be bolstered if Israel gave up its own suspected cache of nuclear arms, believed to be the only such arsenal in the Middle East.
“Syria came into possession of chemical weapons as an alternative to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” Putin said at the gathering of political analysts and experts here in Valdai, about 250 miles northwest of Moscow. “The technological superiority of Israel in the region is so obvious that it doesn’t require nuclear weapons, which makes [Israel] a target and creates a special problem for it.”
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached the deal to eliminate the Syrian arsenal following a series of chemical weapons attacks against civilians near Damascus last month that the U.S. and its allies say were carried out by Syrian troops.
At Thursday’s session, Putin was pressed by Dmitri Simes, a U.S. political expert of Russian origin, who said that “America can’t tolerate evil not to be punished” and will not allow Assad to stay in power in Syria. The Russian president argued that Al Qaeda might take power if the Syrian leader were deposed.
“Why? What are you trying to achieve?” Putin asked. “If evil should be punished, what is evil there? The fact that Assad’s family has been in power for 40 years and that there is no democracy there?"
Putin spoke about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Libya and Egypt, saying that there are whole regions in the world that can’t live by the dictates of American and European democracy.
“In Libya they fought for democracy,” Putin said. “Where is that democracy? Everybody is fighting against everybody else. They killed the U.S. ambassador!”
Putin insisted that Washington should bear equal responsibility with Moscow for the success of the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, and reiterated his previous insistence that Russia doesn’t want to keep Assad in power by any and all means.
Nikolai Zlobin, president of the Washington-based Center on Global Interests, said Putin realizes that Russia doesn’t have as much clout with Assad as the Soviet Union had with the Syrian leader’s late father, Hafez Assad.
“Washington would certainly love to hear from Russia that they have enough influence over Assad to make him comply. But no one today, even Putin himself, can guarantee that Assad will continue to fulfill his commitments and obligations to the end,” Zlobin, a participant in the Valdai forum, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“Putin wants [President] Obama to act as a guarantor of this plan too, not only because he wants to share responsibility. Putin wants this initiative to succeed by all means because he also counts on it to have the potential to become a firmer base for a new stage of cooperation with the United States.”
“Putin makes it clear that he will not give Assad away because he dreads to see some fundamentalist Islamists taking over in Syria,” Zlobin said, adding that “on the other hand Putin doesn’t have many allies like Assad in the Middle East and elsewhere to see him go down just like that.”
Putin made it clear that Russia remains unconvinced after a report this week by United Nations experts that the U.S. and its allies say proves the Assad government was behind the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, the Syrian capital.
“The U.N. inspectors' report made it clear that chemical weapons were used but it is not clear who did that,” Putin said. “We are talking about the Assad government’s responsibility if he did that, but what if [chemical weapons] were used by the opposition? What then should be done with the opposition? It is not an idle question.”
Russia has “every reason to believe it was a provocation -- a sly and smart provocation, but at the same time the way it was technically carried out it was very primitive,” Putin said, discounting reports that artillery shell fragments marked with Cyrillic letters and fired from areas occupied by the Syrian military prove that government troops were responsible.
“They took an old Soviet-made round that was written off from Syrian army arsenals long ago,” he said. “The main thing was that [the inscription on] it says that was made in the U.S.S.R.”
It should not be up to the U.S. Congress whether force is used against Syria, he said.
“If we succeed in finding an answer to the question who did it, no matter how hard it may be,” he said, “then we together with our colleagues in the U.N. Security Council will define a measure of responsibility for those who committed that.”