Leaders of the group of the G20 major economies are set to debate sanctions against Syria in a 5-6 September meeting in St Petersburg, with Western nations led by the United States preparing for air strikes in retaliation to a recent chemical attack on civilians.
Russian experts quoted by the Russian press agency, RIA Novosti, said that it was unlikely that US President Barack Obama would decide to carry attacks against targets in Syria ahead of the St Petersburg summit.
Many hundreds of people died in Damascus suburbs on 21 August in what appears to have been the worst chemical weapons attack since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fatally gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
The US has put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on notice as he is believed to have been responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians last week, in what US Secretary of State John Kerry called a "moral obscenity".
But Russia, who supports Assad, says it is far from proven that the Syrian army carried the attack.
Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said that Syrian rebels, some linked to Al Qaeda, have brought chemical weapons from outside the country.
“The former leader of Libya Muammar Gadhafi got plenty [of chemical weapons],” Chizhov reportedly said to the ITAR-TASS agency.
According to the Russian diplomat, the West is about to repeat the same mistakes of the Kosovo war, when it ignored a report on the Račak massacre which said those were not civilians, but members of the Kosovo Liberation Army killed in combat. The Račak massacre was used a pretext for launching the 24 March-10 June 1999 Kosovo war, he said.
Similarly, Chizhov referred to the vial containing white powder displayed by then Secretary of State Colin Powell in the UN Security Council in February 2003, which was presented as a proof that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons for mass destruction.
This episode gave the pretext for starting the Iraq war, and later Powell wrote in his book that this white powder, which was in fact salt, was the darkest day of his life.
In the case of military intervention, the civil war in Syria would only be prolonged and become bloodier, said Chizhov.
Moreover, as the Western countries do not want to send “boots” on the ground, they would only be able to rely on the anti-government forces, he said.
“I hope that European leaders will be wise enough not to start a large-scale arms shipments to Syria. Let’s not forget that the most battle-worthy elements of the Syrian opposition are in fact forces close to Al Qaeda, who even now, in their own environment, lack unity,” Chizhov said.
Not repeating past mistakes
According to Russian experts, Obama is under “great pressure” to launch a Syria operation, but needs to make sure that he would not be repeating past mistakes. Therefore, they conclude, an attack ahead of the St Petersburg summit is unlikely.
"It seems that for the US to strike before the summit is not quite right. Anyway, there is time for reflection," said Vladimir Yevseyev, director of the Russian Center for Socio-Political Studies. The pressure is on the US president, agreed an expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs, Ambassador Extraordinary Peter Stegnii.
"It seems to me that Obama does not want to use force, I mean Obama personally. [...] But pressure is put on him," said Stegnii. Stegnii added that Obama had received the Nobel Prize “in advance” for promises he made on Iraq and Afghanistan, and that he would not like to change his reputation for peace.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are to meet in St Petersburg, but whether they will hold a bilateral meeting is unclear. The two leaders are at odds over Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
European Commission spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen appeared surprised when asked yesterday (27 August) if there was a risk that the G20 summit in St Petersburg would be cancelled if the US and its allies carried out strikes in Syria in the meantime.
Hansen insisted that G20 was a forum for economic cooperation, and that there were other forums that were more specialised in security issues.
The Commission made public a brochure highlighting the relative weight of the EU in the context of the G20.