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Report: Russia ‘doesn’t exclude’ support for UN-approved military strike on Syria

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Posted at 7:06 AM, Sep 04, 2013
and last updated 2013-09-04 09:06:27-04

By Lateef Mungin and Mike Pearson

(CNN) — As lawmakers in the United States and France prepared Wednesday to debate the merits of military intervention in Syria’s brutal civil war, Russia’s president said his country could back a U.N.-approved military strike on Syria if there’s proof that the regime used chemical weapons.

“If there are data that the chemical weapons have been used, and used specifically by the regular army, this evidence should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council,” President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television.

“It should be a deep and specific probe containing evidence that would be obvious and prove beyond doubt who did it and what means were used,” he told the news agency.

Putin said he “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on military strikes given strong evidence — but also cautioned against the U.S. striking without one.

Nations including the United States, France and Britain have concluded the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack last month on rebel-held territory outside of Damascus. The United States says that more than 1,400 people died.

On Wednesday, French lawmakers are scheduled to debate the merits of a strike favored by President Francois Hollande to punish Syria for that attack. In the United States, a Senate committee will discuss a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to stage a limited military response.

Obama said last year that the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war would cross a “red line” for U.S. intervention. International agreements ban the use of chemical weapons, and many Western leaders worry that allowing their use to go unchecked in Syria could weaken that prohibition.

Among them is British Prime Minister David Cameron. British lawmakers last week voted to preclude military involvement, but Cameron told them Wednesday that it would be dangerous to urge other nations to follow that lead.

“I think to ask the president of the United States, having set that red line, having made that warning, to step away from it, I think that would be a very perilous suggestion to make because in response I think you would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime,” Cameron told Parliament.

In his interview Wednesday, Putin said it’s “absurd” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would resort to using chemical weapons when they already have the upper hand over the rebels.

Putin also questioned what the U.S. response would be if it was proven that the rebels used banned chemical weapons.

“If it is concluded that the fighters use weapons of mass destruction, what will the U.S. do with the fighters?” Putin said, according to the news agency. “Are they going to launch military action against them?”

Putin would not address what Russia would do if the United States decided to go it alone, saying it was “too early” to talk about that scenario.

“We have our plans,” he said.

Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It has the power to veto Security Council resolutions against the Syrian regime and has done so repeatedly over the past two years.

Russia’s deals with Syria

In the interview, Putin also said that Moscow has given some parts of an air defense missile system to Syria, but has frozen additional shipments.

Russia is one of Syria’s biggest arms suppliers.

Syrian contracts with the Russian defense industry have likely exceeded $4 billion, according to Jeffrey Mankoff, an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Russia and Eurasia Program.

He noted the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the value of Russian arms sales to Syria at $162 million per year in both 2009 and 2010.

Moscow also signed a $550 million deal with Syria for combat training jets.

Russia also leases a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean, Mankoff said.

More than 100,000 people dead

Putin’s statements come as more and more sobering and staggering statistics emerge from the Syrian conflict.

The United Nations has said more than 100,000 people — including many civilians — have been killed since the popular uprising spiraled into a civil war in 2011. Syrian opposition activists reported 66 people killed Tuesday, with another 107 who died on Monday, mostly in Damascus and its suburbs.

New U.N. figures Tuesday point to the impact the war has had on the nation.

The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country has risen above 2 million, the U.N. refugee agency reported, an increase of nearly 1.8 million people over the past 12 months.

But at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Security Council members to await test results on the samples collected by U.N. inspectors at the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack August 21.

Those samples will all be at laboratories by Wednesday and will be tested “strictly according to internationally recognized standards,” Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters.

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