MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin urged President Barack Obama on Saturday not to rush into a decision on striking Syria, but to consider whether strikes would help end the violence and be worth the civilian casualties they would inevitably cause.
Speaking for the first time about the suspected chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, Putin also questioned whether Syrian government troops should be held responsible. He said it would make no sense for them to carry out such a devastating attack while they were on the offensive.
“In such conditions, to give a trump card to those who are calling for foreign military intervention is foolish nonsense,” Putin said. “It defies all logic.”
The United States said Friday that the attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
The Russian leader said he was convinced the suspected chemical attack was a provocation aimed at drawing the U.S. military into Syria’s civil war, implying he believed the attack was carried out by the Syrian rebels.
If the Americans have evidence proving the involvement of President Bashar Assad’s regime, they should present it to the United Nations inspectors and the U.N. Security Council, he said. “If there is evidence it should be presented,” Putin said. “If it is not presented, that means it does not exist.”
Putin’s foreign policy adviser complained Friday that Russia had not seen the U.S. intelligence that Washington insists proves the Syrian government was responsible for the attack.
On Saturday, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to provide information backing up the U.S. position, the Foreign Ministry said.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his deputies have stated repeatedly that Russia opposes any use of force against Syria without U.N. Security Council approval, while also making clear that Russia would vote against such a resolution.
Ryabkov used tougher language on Saturday, warning the U.S. that launching strikes without a Security Council resolution would be “an act of aggression, a flagrant violation of international law.”
If Washington goes ahead with the strikes, however, Moscow has appeared to rule out Russian military action. “We’re not intending to go to war with anyone,” Lavrov said early this week.
A longtime ally of Assad, Russia is a major supplier of weapons to Syria and maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus.
In addressing Obama, Putin said he was speaking to him not as the U.S. president but as a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world,” Putin told Russian journalists, including from state television, covering his visit to Vladivostok in the Far East. “Did this resolve even one problem?”
He urged Obama to reflect on the results of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq “before taking a decision to carry out air strikes that will bring casualties, including among the civilian population.”
Putin said he hoped to talk to Obama in person when leaders of the Group of 20 meet next week in St. Petersburg. Obama had planned to hold a separate summit with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20 meeting, but he canceled three weeks ago. The White House said Russia’s decision to grant asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was the last straw, but that a lack of progress on other issues, including on the Syrian civil war, played into the decision.
No one-on-one meetings between Putin and Obama are planned during G-20, but both sides have said it is likely that the two leaders will have an opportunity to talk.