WASHINGTON, April 26 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US claims of evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons give Washington a chance to break its diplomatic stalemate with Russia over the ongoing civil war, but securing Moscow’s endorsement of the claim will likely be a tall order, analysts said Friday.
“I would certainly think that the [US] administration would try hard to get that, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” said Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Washington and Moscow remain at loggerheads over the civil war between rebel forces and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia has delivered arms to Assad’s government and warned against outside intervention in the conflict, saying the opposition is teeming with Islamic extremists. The White House, meanwhile, accuses the Syrian leader of crimes against his own citizens and insists he must step down.
The White House said in a letter to lawmakers this week that intelligence gathered by the United States, with the help of opposition forces in Syria, shows “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.”
US President Barack Obama has called the use of chemical weapons in the conflict a “red line” for potential American intervention. The White House letter said the attack very likely originated with Assad’s forces.
The White House and the US State Department said Friday that the evidence made public this week is being examined further to determine its veracity. And Obama stressed Friday that investigators are being meticulous in their probe.
“Knowing that there's chemical weapons in Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used or how they were used,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “We ourselves will be putting a lot of resources on this.”
Two Syrian officials on Friday denied that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against rebels, The Associated Press reported.
If Assad’s forces indeed used chemical weapons, Washington has a chance to press Russia and China, both UN Security Council members that have blocked sanctions against Syria, to take action, said Bruce Riedel a former veteran Middle East analyst at the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Assad “has given Obama the opportunity to break the Russian and Chinese diplomatic support for Syria that has paralyzed the United Nations from imposing harsh sanctions on Syria as well as a total arms embargo on the Assad regime,” Riedel wrote in a piece Friday for The Daily Beast.
Russian officials, however, have warned about rushing to conclusions concerning the claims.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that any reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict must be carefully investigated to avoid the repetition of the “Iraqi scenario” in which unconfirmed suspicions that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction were enough for foreign invasion.
Moscow appears to be wary of concurring with any evidence put forward by the United States and its allies that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, Kuchins told RIA Novosti.
“At this point it looks like a real challenge to get mutual confirmation,” he said.
It was not immediately clear Friday whether the United States had provided this latest purported evidence of a chemical attack, which reportedly involved the nerve gas sarin, to Russian officials.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a news briefing Friday that he did not have any information about such a correspondence, and White House National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden did not respond to a request for comment.
James Jeffrey, Obama’s former ambassador to Iraq, wrote this week that the Obama administration must consider its relations with Russia and China in deciding whether to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, as well as US-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, makes the West vulnerable if Washington ignores the “geostrategic consequences” to Russia of a Syrian intervention, Jeffrey wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy.
“In diplomacy, as in physics, every action generates a reaction,” Jeffrey wrote. “Any US engagement in Syria will not be different, and the Obama administration must be prepared.”