Syria conflict: Russia doubts UN gas attack report

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after making statements during a news conference following meetings regarding Syria in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday 14 September, 2013.
Image caption US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva on Saturday

When Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed his deal with John Kerry at the weekend, some may have seen that as a sign that Russia was coming around to the American stance on Syria.

But Russia's actions this week have quickly dispelled that view.

Moscow has refused to accept the American, British and French interpretation of the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team's report. It has now even started to undermine Ake Sellstrom's team themselves.

In Damascus, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov complained that Ake Sellstrom's inspectors had only focused on the 21 August attack, and not on other alleged chemical weapons attacks.

As a result he said that their report, published on Monday, could be considered "politicised, biased and one-sided".

He also said that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had given him "new evidence" of rebel involvement in chemical weapons attacks. "We have just been presented with material proof, what is called evidence," he said. "This evidence will need to be analysed."

PR war

The Russians and the Syrians are fighting on multiple fronts at the moment in the PR war, and this suggests they do not want to give too much ground.

Faced with imminent military strikes on Syria, the Russians made the decision that the Assad government would have to give up its chemical weapons.

But that does not mean they have to concede that Bashar al-Assad's soldiers were responsible for the attack on 21 August.

Image caption A photograph provided to the Associated Press by the rebel group Syrian Revolution against Bashar Assad shows a Syrian military tank on fire during clashes with rebel fighters in Joubar, a suburb of Damascus

Allegations that the Syrian government are involved in chemical weapons attacks are still going to be countered with allegations of rebel involvement.

The Russians probably also see dangers in the UN weapons inspectors' report becoming a definitive document about chemical weapons usage in Syria, that's likely to be why Ake Sellstrom's team is now being undermined both by the Russian government and the state-influenced Russian media.

At times though they have found themselves relying on unlikely sources.

In his Tuesday news conference Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the inspectors' report needed studying, "along with the evidence which the internet and the media are now full of - evidence provided by nuns of the nearby convent, and by a female journalist who visited this area".

As we saw on Tuesday, the Russians are wary of any United Nations Security Council resolution. They keep pointing to the agreement made with Mr Kerry on Saturday, which talks about the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons taking the lead.

Image caption The Russian leader does not wish to be seen as a man who backs a tyrant wielding chemical weapons

According to the Russian interpretation of that framework agreement, any United Nations Security Council resolution would only come into play if the Syrians failed to comply with their promises to give up their chemical weapons.


Why are the Russians playing hardball with the Americans? It is partly a big geopolitical power-play. As the state-owned Rossiskaya Gazeta put it this morning, "America has realised that it is simply impossible to rule the world single-handedly."

What is more, the Syrians and Russians both have important PR battles to win at home.

It is important for President Assad that Syrians still loyal to him do not think that he gassed hundreds of people, and it is important for President Putin that he is not seen in Russia as a man who supports a chemical weapons-wielding tyrant.

Both would like to see the Syrian civil war framed, both at home and abroad, as a battle against chaos and uncertainty, and against men they call "terrorists."