Russia warned the West on Tuesday against unilateral action on Syria, a day after US president Barack Obama threatened “enormous consequences” if his Syrian counterpart used chemical or biological arms or even moved them in a menacing way.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after meeting China’s top diplomat, said Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law…and not to allow their violation.”
Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil, also speaking in Moscow, dismissed Obama’s threat as media fodder.
“Direct military intervention in Syria is impossible because whoever thinks about it… is heading towards a confrontation wider than Syria’s borders,” he said at a news conference.
Jamil said the West was seeking an excuse to intervene, likening the focus on Syria’s chemical weapons with the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US-led forces on what proved to be groundless suspicions that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction.
Jamil also said that Assad’s departure could be a topic of discussion, though he rejected the idea of making it a precondition for future talks.
“As far as his resignation goes, making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means that you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” he said. “[But] any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”
Russia and China have opposed military intervention in Syria throughout a 17-month-old revolt against president Bashar al-Assad. They have vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions backed by Western and Arab states that would have put more pressure on Damascus to end violence that has cost 18,000 lives.
The United States and its allies have shown little appetite for intervention to halt the bloodshed on the lines of last year’s NATO campaign that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But Obama used some of his strongest language yet on Monday to warn Assad not to use unconventional weapons.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” he said. “That would change my calculus.”
Syria last month acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical or biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries attacked it.
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said, perhaps referring to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, or to Islamist militants.
The US-based Global Security website says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria producing the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun. It does not cite its sources.
Israel, still formally at war with Syria, has also debated whether to attack the unconventional arms sites which it views as its gravest peril from the conflict next door.
Obama has been reluctant to embroil the United States in another war in the Middle East and refuses to arm Syrian rebels, partly for fear that some of those fighting the Iranian-backed president are Islamist radicals equally hostile to the West.
Rebels have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria near Turkey, which now hosts 70,000 Syrian refugees and which has suggested that the United Nations might need to create a “safe zone” in Syria if that total topped 10,000.
But setting up a safe haven would require imposing a no-fly zone, an idea which US defense secretary Leon Panetta said last week was not a “front-burner” issue for Washington.
With diplomatic efforts to end the war stymied by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria faces the prospect of a prolonged conflict that increasingly sets a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against Assad’s Alawite minority.