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August 26, 2013

Russia Warns West Against Military Action in Syria

by Selah Hennessy

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called on Western states to “avoid past mistakes” and not take military action in Syria. But European governments are considering their response after hundreds of civilians were allegedly killed by Syrian government forces near Damascus last week in a chemical weapons attack.

Lavrov said military intervention against the government  without the approval of the United Nations would be a “gross violation of international law.”

He made the comments at a press conference only hours after Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that an international response to the Syrian crisis would be possible without unanimous U.N. Security Council backing.

“Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity at the U.N. Security Council? I would argue yes, it is," he said. "Otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes.”

He said diplomatic pressure has so far failed to resolve Syria’s conflict and that it must be made clear that chemical weapons cannot be used “with impunity.”

Meanwhile Hague’s counterpart in France, Laurent Fabius, said France was willing to join an international coalition against Syria without Security Council unity.

But speaking on Europe 1 Radio, he said a decision to take military action in Syria has not yet been made.

U.N. arms investigators are gathering evidence related to an alleged chemical weapons attack that took place last Wednesday, in which hundreds of people were killed.

Both sides in Syria’s ongoing conflict have denied responsibility.

Britain and France have said they believe government forces carried out the alleged chemical attack, while a United States government spokesperson has said the U.S. has "very little doubt" that President Bashar al-Assad's forces are responsible.

Assad said the allegations are “politically motivated”. At the press conference Monday, Russia’s Lavrov said Washington, London, and Paris had produced no evidence that the Syrian authorities were guilty of a chemical attack.  

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Syria who is now a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said European leaders still hope to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

“The main thing now is to see if in the coming few days a last attempt at diplomacy can be made and if Russia can be convinced that pressure on the Assad regime would be better than the alternative,” he said.

Pierini said conclusive evidence from the U.N. weapons inspectors could help unify the Security Council, but says complete unity among council members is unlikely in any case.

“The evidence is there, so I am quite convinced that there will be action even without Security Council approval,” he added.

He said Western governments may consider launching missile attacks against the Syrian regime, but added that there is limited popular support for broader military intervention. 

“It all depends on the way it is done. There is an overwhelming lack of support for any ground troops - that would certainly be a major political problem for any of the European countries and for the U.S. - but that is not what we are talking about,” said Pierini.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders says more around 3,600 patients were hospitalized with "neurotoxin symptoms" following last week’s attack. It said 355 people died.

Since Syria’s conflict began, Syria’s allies Russia and China have repeatedly blocked U.N. Security Council sanctions against Assad’s government.