Russia has formed an unlikely alliance with Washington after urging Syria on Tuesday to refrain from using chemical weapons as part of its violent crackdown on anti-regime protests across the country.
Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is reportedly considering unleashing chemical arsenal against the rebels, but his threat drew attention from Russia, Assad’s main international ally.
In Moscow, the foreign ministry said it “would like to underline that Syria joined” a Geneva protocol on the non-use of such weapons and “presumes that the Syrian authorities will continue to rigorously abide by its assumed international obligations,” according to AFP news agency.
There has been a barrage of warnings about Syria’s chemical arsenal this month, especially strident from the United States and Israel, but accompanied by firm but private advice from Russia, Assad’s main international ally, to put an end to speculation he might use it.
Analysts and diplomats across the region and beyond do not doubt that the Assad government, recoiling from a devastating attack on its security establishment last week and struggling to contain rebel offensives across Syria, is capable of using agents such as Sarin gas if its survival is at stake.
Yet some believe that the government’s unprecedented admission that it possesses a chemical stockpile - although in safe storage and only to be deployed against “external aggressors” - is an attempt to allay international alarm that might prompt outside intervention to secure the weapons.
“They have a keen instinct for regime survival and this is an issue which didn’t play well for them, which would really bring serious consequences, not the type of stuff we have been seeing so far from the international community,” Salman al-Shaikh of the Brookings Doha center told Reuters.
“I think they wanted to move quickly to take us away from that, to reassure in many ways.
“This regime is capable of anything, but in this case it felt there may well be consequences, that they are perhaps crossing some red lines.”
But Russia took more than a day to formulate a response before issuing the carefully worded statement that demanded compliance with international treaties while not directly blaming Syria for making the threat.
The ministry had earlier on Tuesday re-issued an earlier Syrian travel advisory warning to all Russian citizens.
Russian flotilla heads for Syria
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a Russian naval flotilla of warships destined for the Syrian port of Tartus has entered the Mediterranean, Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday.
“The Russian ships today passed the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean at 1200 GMT,” said a defense ministry spokesman, quoted by Itar-Tass agency.
Led by the Admiral Chabanenko anti-submarine destroyer, the three landing craft left their home port of Severomorsk in the Arctic Circle earlier this month. They are due to be joined in the Mediterranean by the Russian patrol ship Yaroslav Mudry as well as an assistance vessel.
The ships will perform “planned military maneuvers,” said the ministry.
Earlier in the month a military source said the ships would be topping up on supplies of fuel, water and foodstuffs.
Russia has denied that the deployment is linked to the escalating conflict in Syria.