Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a Sept. 19 meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod region. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AFP via Getty Images)
VALDAI, RUSSIA — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he was confident but not 100 percent sure that Syria would carry out its commitments to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles under a Russia-US agreement.
“Will we manage to carry it through? I can’t say 100 percent, but all that we have seen recently, in the last few days, inspires confidence that it is possible and that it will be done,” Putin said at a meeting of the Valdai international discussion club with Western politicians and journalists in the northwestern Novgorod region.
Putin said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was already putting into practice the proposals announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Saturday.
The framework agreement agreed by the two countries calls for Syria to hand over all its chemical weapons for destruction by mid-2014.
“Will we manage to convince Assad or not? I don’t know,” Putin said. “But so far everything looks as if Syria has fully agreed with our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that is being developed by the international community at the United Nations.”
In a first step, Syria has already announced it will abide by the terms of the international ban on chemical weapons, Putin said.
“These are practical steps that the Syrian government has already taken.”
The US-Russia plan is the result of intense diplomacy to avert US-led military action against the Syrian regime, which Washington and its allies blame for a deadly gas attack on a Damascus suburb last month.
The US has however insisted that the threat of force should remain on the table should Syria fail to comply with the agreement.
“If the attempts to resolve the problem peacefully aren’t successful, this will be extremely bad,” Putin acknowledged.
But he insisted that only the UN Security Council could discuss the question of whether to use force against Syria.
The Russian leader, whose government is Syria’s most powerful ally, insisted it was not proven who was behind the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta that killed hundreds of people including many children on August 21.
“It’s clear that (chemical) arms were used ... It’s just not clear who did it,” he said.
“We talk all the time about the responsibility of the Assad regime if he used them. But what if the opposition used them? No one says what we will do with the opposition then, and this is not an idle question,” Putin said.
“We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation.”
He claimed that the chemical attack was set up by rebel forces to appear as if it was carried out by Assad’s regime.
He argued that this was done in a “primitive” way because the attack used an outdated type of shell made in the Soviet Union that the Syrian army no longer uses.
Putin warned Washington against supporting rebel forces, saying it would have to deal with the consequences of helping al-Qaida-linked fighters.
“You will help them take power, and then what? Will you swat them away with a newspaper?”
He also spoke about the role of Israel in the region, saying that Syria had developed its chemical weapons as a counterweight to Israel, which is widely believed to be nuclear-armed.
“Chemical weapons appeared in Syria as an alternative to the nuclear weapons of Israel, we know this very well,” Putin said.
“The technical advantage of Israel — we need to say this directly — is such that it doesn’t need nuclear weapons. Israel is already in a technical military sense several heads above the countries in the region,” he said.
“Nuclear weapons just make it a target. They just create foreign policy problems.”