MOSCOW – Russia is working closely with the Syrian government to ensure that its arsenal of chemical weapons remains under firm control and has won promises that the weapons of mass destruction will not be used or moved, Moscow's point man on Syria told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The potential use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has put Russia, the Syrian regime's steadfast ally, in a rare point of agreement with the United States, which has pressured Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in the face of an armed uprising.
Russia has shielded Assad's regime from U.N. sanctions and continued to provide it with weapons throughout the 18-month conflict, which activists estimate has killed more than 20,000 people. In July, Syria first acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons by threatening to use them if foreign states tried to interfere militarily.
President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States might have to intervene in Syria if the government there used or moved chemical weapons. Obama also warned of the threat of such weapons falling into the hands of rebels fighting the government or militant groups aiding either side.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia is in full agreement with the Americans on the need to prevent Assad's government from using the weapons or allowing them to slip out from under its control.
"We have guarantees from the Syrian government that it will not take any steps involving chemical weapons," the Russian diplomat said. "And I want to reiterate that on this issue we will restrain it in all ways possible and work toward the goal of preventing such things from happening."
He said the Foreign Ministry was in constant contact with U.S. officials, pointing to last week's visit by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
While in Moscow, Sherman urged the Russians to make clear to Assad that the use of chemical weapons would have disastrous consequences and delivered the message that if the weapons were used, the Russians would be expected to help with the cleanup, according to a U.S. official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to discuss the details of the visit.
Russia, meanwhile, is counting on the United States and others to use their influence with opposition forces to prevent the chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, Gatilov said.
"As we all know, among the opposition are terrorist elements, in particular belonging to al-Qaida," he said. "Of course, if all of a sudden, as a result of some actions, these weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists who could take a totally irresponsible attitude toward them, this would be a very serious development."
A senior Syrian government official, in Moscow for talks on Tuesday, said Obama's warning indicated that the West was looking for a pretext to intervene in Syria. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil drew a comparison with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which the Bush administration justified by claiming, falsely as it turned out, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian situation is different, Gatilov noted, because Syria has chemical weapons. After the Assad regime's announcement in July, Russia pointedly reminded Syria that it had ratified a global convention banning the use of chemical weapons.
Russia has staunchly opposed demands for Assad to step down and called for talks between the Syrian regime and its foes, arguing that only the Syrian people have a right to determine the future of their country. But Syrian opposition leaders have refused to take part in negotiations until Assad gives up power.
"As to the Russian position, we never put forward as a condition the demand that Assad should go or, equally, we never said that Assad should stay," Gatilov said.
He said Russia works with Syria's government and meets with visiting representatives of opposition groups.
"Regrettably, we have to state that we haven't seen our Western partners working as actively with the opposition, encouraging it to join a political dialogue," he said. "We would like to hope that, at least on the subject of chemical weapons, they will take a rather more responsible attitude to this. We all understand that chemical weapons should not be used or fall into the hands of those groups who will not be controlled in their actions."
Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.