U.S. Diplomat: Russian Interests in Syrian Chemical Disarmament Remain

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem take their seats at a January press conference in Moscow. Tensions over Ukraine have raised questions over Russia's role in a range of international initiatives, but a senior U.S. envoy on Thursday said a multilateral effort to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal is still in Moscow's "self-interest."
National Journal
Diane Barnes
March 7, 2014, 6:55 a.m.

A seni­or U.S. dip­lo­mat stressed Rus­sia’s “self-in­terest” in elim­in­at­ing Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al arms, as a rift grew between Mo­scow and oth­er cap­it­als over Ukraine.

Rus­sia’s key role in a glob­al op­er­a­tion to des­troy the weapons held by its Dam­as­cus ally is “not a fa­vor to the United States,” but rather it re­flects shared ob­ject­ives, Deputy Sec­ret­ary of State Wil­li­am Burns said on Thursday. Mo­scow laid the ground­work for the dis­arm­a­ment ini­ti­at­ive last Septem­ber, after an Aug. 21 nerve-gas strike in Syr­ia’s civil war promp­ted threats of for­eign mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad’s re­gime.

“I be­lieve Rus­sia re­mains com­mit­ted to the ob­ject here, which is the re­mov­al and de­struc­tion of all of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons stock­pile,” Burns said dur­ing a Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

The seni­or en­voy made his com­ments in re­sponse to ques­tions from Sen­at­or Jeff Flake (R-Ar­iz.), who asked how an in­ter­na­tion­al crisis over Rus­sia’s armed in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine has af­fected mul­ti­lat­er­al ef­forts to pull As­sad’s chem­ic­al weapons out of con­flict-torn Syr­ia. Be­cause of  ten­sions over Ukraine, NATO this week sus­pen­ded its plans to team with Rus­sia in guard­ing the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment’s dead­li­est war­fare chem­ic­als dur­ing de­struc­tion at sea.

Burns min­im­ized the Ukraine stan­doff’s po­ten­tial im­pact on the chem­ic­al-re­mov­al ef­fort, which has en­countered delays re­cently. U.S. of­fi­cials and their al­lies have ac­cused As­sad’s re­gime of in­ten­tion­al foot-drag­ging. Last Septem­ber, Rus­sia and the United States hammered out a plan call­ing for the de­struc­tion of the en­tire Syr­i­an chem­ic­al ar­sen­al by the middle of 2014.

“By the be­gin­ning of next week about 35 per­cent of that stock­pile should be re­moved from Syr­ia,” Burns said. “It’s still pos­sible to meet the 30th of June tar­get that’s been set, and I think it’s vi­tally im­port­ant to do that, and that’s an area where I be­lieve Rus­sia has a self-in­terest in try­ing to en­sure that that hap­pens.”

Mo­scow has made “a very vis­ible and pub­lic com­mit­ment” to elim­in­at­ing the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment’s chem­ic­al ar­sen­al, Burns said in his testi­mony. “I think [Rus­sia] has a self-in­terest in try­ing to en­sure that that hap­pens. And you know, we will cer­tainly do everything we can to help en­sure it does.”

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