Russia says Western attack on Syria would be ‘catastrophic’

A Western military attack on Syria will only create more problems in the region, lead to more bloodshed and result in the same sort of “catastrophe” as previous Western interventions in Iraq and Libya, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Monday.

“Hysteria is growing and confrontation is incited,” Lavrov said in what he portrayed as an emergency press conference. He said the United States and its European allies have condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad without any evidence that it actually used chemical weapons in an assault on a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.

Turkey, Britain and France all indicated on Monday that they would back the Obama administration if it decides to take action against Syria in response to the alleged attack, even without a United Nations mandate.

Russia has been a stalwart ally of Assad, refusing to allow United Nations action to intervene in Syria’s conflict. On Monday, the newspaper Izvestia published an interview with Assad in which he warned the West against military intervention and noted that Russia continues to sell arms to Damascus under the terms of existing contracts.

Although Russia sent a small naval task force to the eastern Mediterranean earlier this year, and maintains a refitting station in the Syrian port of Tartus, Moscow would appear to have little recourse in the event of a Western attack beyond verbal denunciations.

Lavrov said Russia would not be going to war with anybody.

The Russian foreign minister does not regularly hold full-scale press conferences. Monday’s offered no new arguments but gave Lavrov a chance to insist that the West should not act against Assad, especially without evidence.

A United Nations inspection team tried to begin its work Monday to determine if chemical weapons were used last week, although it held off temporarily when it came under unidentified sniper attack. Lavrov said its only mandate is to identify evidence of any chemical weapons — not to say who used them. That responsibility, he said, belongs to the Security Council once the inspectors’ report is submitted.

As a member of the Security Council, Russia holds a veto over any decision that comes before the U.N. body.

Moscow suspects that if chemical weapons were used last week, it may well have been a provocation by rebel forces, Lavrov said — probably designed to undermine prospects for the long-delayed Russian-American peace conference on Syria.

Lavrov said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had assured him a telephone conversation on Sunday that the United States remains committed to the conference. Lavrov said he asked Kerry what America’s strategy is as it moves closer to a military attack. Kerry replied, he said, by urging Russia and China to join the West in ensuring that chemical weapons in Syria do not fall into the wrong hands.

If NATO attacks Syria without U.N. sanction — in a rerun of the air war over Kosovo in 1999, which Russia also strongly opposed — it would be a “severe violation of international law” that, moreover, serves to aggravate, not solve, the conflict. Lavrov said.

He accused the Western powers of ignoring international law when it suits them and treating other “civilizations” as second-rate. “The tide will turn one day,” he said. “Nations and states should be respected.”

Ever since President Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000, Russian foreign policy has been predicated on stability, which is typically translated into an aversion to regime change. Russia opposed the war in Iraq, opposed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and now opposes the rebels in Syria. Putin believes Russia was tricked by the West into allowing action in Libya, which Moscow also looks upon as a disaster.

On Monday, Lavrov once again criticized the Syrian rebels for an intransigence that has forestalled the peace conference first proposed by Russia and the United States last spring. He said it was now unlikely that it could be scheduled anytime before the end of September.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily