Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared that there had been an exaggeration of the threat faced by Turkey to justify Nato’s deployment of Patriot missile batteries and the move will end up adding to the tension in the region; “any such deployment is creating the risk that these arms will be used” he maintained.
Speaking at a ministerial meeting of the Alliance in Brussels, Mr Lavrov insisted that “as soon as we get these rumours [about chemical weapons] we engage in constructive demarche; when we get confirmation that nothing of that type is happening we share this information with our American colleagues.”
Mr Lavrov, who had, alongside President Putin, held talks with the Turkish leadership, said that Moscow respected Turkey’s right to self-defence and Russia would not make a formal objection about the stationing of the Patriot system. However, his statements directly contradicted the stance of the US, UK and Nato, which maintain that a desperate Assad regime may use weapons of mass destruction against its enemies.
Barack Obama had warned President Assad that “the world is watching” and “if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
British foreign secretary William Hague echoed: “We are worried about Syria’s chemical weapons, more so in recent days for the same reason the US is worried. We have sent a clear message to the Syrian regime that the use of such weapons will not be acceptable. That is not to say, of course, that what they are doing now is acceptable.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated: “Twenty-eight Nato foreign ministers unanimously agreed to express their concern at reports that the Syrian regime may be considering using chemical weapons, this would be contrary to international law and there would be an immediate reaction from the international community.”
Tonight Nato formally agreed to deploy Patriot batteries. Mr Rasmussen stated “We say to anyone thinking of attacking Turkey ‘don’t even think about it.’”
Mr Rasmussen had called Mr Lavrov 48 hours after Turkey, as a member state, submitted the request for Patriot deployment on 21 November. He has, he said, repeatedly stressed to the Russian foreign minister that the stationing of the system was a defensive and not offensive move and there were no plans to set up a ‘no fly’ or a ‘buffer’ zone keeping out Syrian forces.
Some Russian officials remain unconvinced. “With a bad winter and 50,000 refugees stuck on the Syrian side of the border there may well be calls for a buffer zone. Then the West can say that the Patriots just happen to be there. We know their range [around 70 kilometres] will be adequate to enforce this.”
However, there are signs that the Russians may be distancing themselves from Mr Assad while pointing out their concern about what may follow after the regime’s collapse.
Speaking in Istanbul, President Putin said “We are not lawyers for the Syrian leadership’s actions; we are concerned with other things, namely what will happen in the future”, before adding – alluding to the lawlessness which followed the overthrow of Col Gaddafi in Libya – “We don’t want the recurrence of the mistakes made in the past.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and influential think tank with Kremlin connections reported a visit by senior Russian officials to Damascus during which they found President Assad to have given up hopes of defeating the revolution and his own survival.
“His mood is that he will be killed anyway. If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people, if he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival” said Mr Lukyanov.
Meanwhile the bloodletting continued in Syria with fighting across the country. The official television channel claimed that 29 students and a teacher were killed in a rebel mortar strike on a school 25 kilometres from Damascus. An education ministry official said later that the death toll was 13 students and one teacher.