MOSCOW — A Western military attack on Syria would only create more problems in the region, lead to more bloodshed and result in the same sort of “catastrophe” as previous such 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 news 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 attack in the Damascus suburbs on Wednesday.
Turkey, Britain and France indicated Monday that they would back the Obama administration if it decided to act against Syria in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack, even without a mandate from the United Nations.
Russia has been a stalwart ally of Assad, refusing to allow U.N. action to intervene in Syria’s conflict. On Monday, the Russian newspaper Izvestia published an interview with Assad in which he warned the West against military intervention and noted that Moscow continues to sell arms to Damascus under the terms of existing contracts.
Although Russia sent a small naval task force to the eastern Mediterranean this year and maintains a refitting station in the Syrian port of Tartus, Moscow would appear to have little recourse — beyond verbal denunciations — in the event of a Western attack.
Lavrov said Russia would not be going to war with anybody.
The Russian foreign minister does not regularly hold full-scale news 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 U.N. inspection team began its work Monday to determine whether chemical weapons were used last week, though it held off temporarily when it came under sniper attack. Lavrov said the team’s only mandate is to identify evidence of 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 permanent member of the Security Council, Russia holds the power to veto any decision that comes before the U.N. body.
Moscow suspects that if chemical weapons were used last week, Lavrov said, it may have been a provocation by rebel forces — probably designed to undermine prospects for the long-delayed Russian-American peace conference on Syria.
Lavrov said Secretary of State John F. Kerry had assured him during a telephone conversation Sunday that the United States remains committed to the conference. Lavrov said he asked Kerry what the U.S. strategy is as the Obama administration appears to move closer to a military attack. Kerry replied, Lavrov 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 attacked Syria without U.N. sanction — in a rerun of the air war over Kosovo in 1999, which Russia strongly opposed — it would be a “severe violation of international law” that served merely to aggravate, not solve, the conflict, Lavrov said.
He accused Western powers of ignoring international law at will and treating other “civilizations” as second-rate. “The tide will turn one day,” Lavrov 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, was against the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and now sides against the rebels in Syria. Putin believes that the West tricked Russia into allowing action in Libya, an intervention that Moscow views as a disaster.
On Monday, Lavrov once again criticized the Syrian rebels, saying their intransigence has forestalled the peace conference proposed by Russia and the United States in the spring. He said it was unlikely that it could be scheduled anytime before late September.