Vladimir Putin suggested that Russia could support US-led military action against Bashar al-Assad's regime on Wednesday as he suspended deliveries of advanced air defences to Damascus. In an apparent softening of his rhetoric ahead of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, the Russian president said he would not rule out backing a strike, provided it was approved by the United Nations Security Council and there was clear proof that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons.
But he warned that any military action without UN approval would amount to "aggression" and accused John Kerry, the US secretary of state, of hiding the extent of al-Qaeda involvement in Syria's civil war. In an interview with Russian television and the Associated Press published yesterday, he was asked whether his country would support military action if there was conclusive proof of the regime's guilt over chemical weapons.
"I don't rule it out," Putin said. "But I'd call your attention to the fact that under existing international law sanctions on the use of the weapons by sovereign states may be taken only by the UN Security Council. Any other approach that could lead to the use of force against an independent and sovereign state can only be considered aggression." He did not clarify whether support would amount to military involvement, or just dropping diplomatic objections. He insisted that the evidence to justify such a strike "has to be convincing".
He said: "Not rumours, or information acquired by intelligence agencies eavesdropping on conversations, and so on." He confirmed for the first time that Russia had halted deliveries of S300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian regime, but also delivered an implicit threat to resume them. "We have a contract to deliver the S300, we have delivered some components, but deliveries are not complete and currently we have paused them," he said.
"But if we see steps being taken connected to violations of international law, we will think about how to act in future." Syria is believed to have ordered four of the missile systems, which would pose a serious threat to any attempted air strikes, for just under $1 billion. Russia is considered unlikely to turn against its ally. But Putin's comments will raise hopes among diplomats assembling for the G20 summit today and tomorrow that the Kremlin might be persuaded to waive its Security Council veto in a vote on military action. Russian acquiescence secured the resolution used to justify military intervention in Libya in 2011.
Russia has previously refused to entertain the notion that the Assad regime could have been behind the apparent chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed nearly 1,500 people on Aug 21. Putin did not deny yesterday that chemical poisoning had occurred, but continued to express doubts about whether regime forces were responsible.
Later in the interview, he hardened his rhetoric, accusing Kerry of "an ugly lie" for telling Congress that al-Qaeda was not involved in Syria. "John Kerry believes that Assad's army has chemical weapons, but another secretary of state in the Bush administration assured the world that Iraq had chemical weapons, and even showed us some kind of test tube of white powder," he recalled in the interview. "What, have we forgotten that?"