WASHINGTON, September 4 (RIA Novosti) – US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that Russia was a supplier of chemical weapons to the Syrian military, but the Pentagon quickly backed off the claim and said Hagel was referring to conventional weapons.
Speaking in testimony before the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives, Hagel said: “There’s no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons, significant stockpiles of chemical weapons.”
Pressed by a representative to name the origin of those chemical weapons, Hagel added: “The Russians supply them, others are supplying them with those chemical weapons, they make some themselves.”
He did not provide further details.
Russia has long stated that it sells only conventional weapons to Syria, that these transfers are in strict compliance with international law and regulations and that they in no way modify the balance of power in the volatile region.
There was no immediate official response to Hagel’s comments from Moscow. But a Russian military expert there poured scorn on the remarks.
"The Pentagon chief's statement is a blatant lie like the notorious test tube with anthrax from the arsenal of Saddam Hussein that then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell was shaking in the Security Council," said Igor Korotchenko, a member of the public council under the Russian Defense Ministry and the chief editor of the National Defense magazine.
Korotchenko was apparently referring to an incident in 2003 when Powell demonstrated a model test tube of anthrax to show the supposed power of the Iraqi regime's biological weapons. However, a US-led survey was unable to locate WMD stockpiles in Iraq.
"The United States has powerful and effective special services, and Hagel could have turned to them to obtain comprehensive information that the Russian Federation has never supplied weapons of mass destruction to anyone, even its closest allies," Korotchenko said.
In a statement released shortly after Hagel made his comments, Pentagon spokesman George Little attenuated the US defense chief’s remarks.
"In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia,” Little said.
Little described Syria’s chemical weapons program as “largely indigenous” but noted that Russia has provided Syria with various types of military equipment and support, “some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program.”
He did not elaborate.
Updates with Pentagon clarification.