Behind Russia's Syria Stance

The chairman of the Russian legislature's international-affairs committee speaks to TNI.

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the international-affairs committee of the Russian State Duma. It was conducted by Paul J. Saunders, associate publisher of The National Interest, on June 17, 2013.

Paul Saunders: The G-8 leaders, as you know, are meeting this week and talking about Syria. Last week President Obama’s administration announced their determination that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons and announced a decision to start supplying limited weapons to the Syrian government. You are quoted in the media to reacting very strongly to that, saying that the evidence was fabricated, saying even that the United States was lying. Those are fairly strong statements. I was wondering whether you have any evidence for that, whether you believe that the United States really fabricated evidence, and if so, why?

Alexey Pushkov: Actually, on Twitter I said that the data about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government was fabricated in the same quarters as the data about Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. What leads me to believe this is a fact is that there is no conclusive nor strong evidence that the chemical weapons were used by the Syrian army. I know that some U.S. officials who have been in Moscow showed some evidence to the Russian side, and I know the Russian side was very skeptical. The supposed evidence that was brought to Moscow was absolutely inconclusive. It was not connected to any particular place nor any particular time.

The Syrian government was absolutely not interested in using chemical weapons. It is against the interest of the Syrian government to use those weapons in small quantities, as it was by the way admitted by the American side, that it was small quantities of chemical weapons. It is absolutely counterproductive. It could have given nothing on the battlefield, but it could give a very strong pretext—for the United States, for France, Great Britain and other countries—to assert the Syrian government crossed the “red line” in order to start to finance and arm the rebels directly. So the use of chemical weapons was absolutely against the Syrian government’s interest.

But the use of those weapons by the rebels makes a lot of sense. It’s absolutely logical. It fits completely with the rebels’ attempts to get military and financial support from the United States and its European allies. In May 2013 some UN observers, among them the former prosecutor of the UN Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Carla del Ponte, made statements supporting claims that chemical weapons were used in fact by the rebels in order to bring accusations against the Syrian government. There was more information coming from the Iraqi government that they had discovered three underground factories that were producing sarin and that these three underground factories belonged to groups associated with al Qaida and the Syrian rebels.

So, having all this information, it is not difficult to see that it was in the interest of the rebels to use chemical weapons. It gave them the possibility to say that the United States should react because the Assad government allegedly crossed the “red line.” They had a place from which they could have obtained sarin—those factories in Iraq—and the small quantities that were used were exactly enough to start the wide campaign against the Syrian government, accusing it of using weapons of mass destruction.

We were not born yesterday. We remember ten years ago, when the Bush administration deceived the United States and the whole world by implying that they had strong evidence of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. It turned out that this was a complete lie. It was fabricated—and I insist on using this term—it was fabricated inside the administration. It was fabricated for political reasons, because George Bush needed a pretext to invade and occupy Iraq.

Paul Saunders: The United States has announced that it’s going to provide small arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels. And some people in Russia and elsewhere have reacted strongly to that. I think I saw some fairly strong statements from President Putin about the U.S. decision. Why do you think it is such a big deal for the United States to supply small arms to the Syrian rebels when Russia is supplying arms to the regime, and Iran is supplying arms to the regime? There are a number of other governments supplying arms to the rebels and certainly providing, by all indications, more than just the small arms and ammunition that the United States is now talking about providing. Of course many in the United States and Europe would argue that it’s important to give the rebels this kind of support so that the Assad regime has some sort of incentive to find a negotiated solution at the peace conference that everyone is trying to organize.

Alexey Pushkov: As seen from Moscow, it is a serious change in the position of the U.S. government. Half a year ago, Barack Obama rejected the suggestion that was advanced to him by the heads of the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon to begin arming Syrian rebels. Now it is happening, and it looks like the Americans have crossed the “red line” between political and financial support of the rebels and military support of the rebels, which actually is the first step toward engaging in the war.