Syrian and Iranian officials were headed to Moscow on Monday to discuss a possible US-led strike on the Assad regime, in response to its reported use of chemical weapons in an attack near Damascus on August 21.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem wass due to meet with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, while Iranian Deputy FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian planned to meet with Russian Deputy FM Mikhail Bogdanov and other top officials.
“They [the talks] will focus on an all-encompassing discussion of all the aspects of the current situation in Syria and around it,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia has remained a staunch ally of the Assad regime, refusing to end cooperation and vehemently opposing any military action in the country, which has put it at odds with the United States.
Moscow has made it clear it is unconvinced the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, calling such claims “utter nonsense” and urging the US to present proof to the UN Security Council.
The visits come days after a G-20 summit hosted in St-Petersburg ended with world leaders divided over a course of action.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met briefly with US President Barack Obama at the summit, but the two failed to agree.
“We remained unconvinced by each other. But there is a dialogue, we hear each other and understand the arguments. I disagree with him, with his arguments, he disagrees with mine, but we hear [each other] and try to analyze [arguments],” Putin was quoted as saying.
The US, citing intelligence reports, said sarin gas was used in the August 21 attack outside Damascus, and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.
The attack caused an international uproar and prompted Obama to seek Congressional approval of a military strike against Assad’s regime.
The Obama administration has been making a big push to rally members of Congress and the international community to support a US-led strike against the Syrian regime. Lawmakers are this week to consider a resolution authorizing the “limited and specified use” of US armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and barring American ground troops from combat.
The White House asserted Sunday that a “common-sense test” rather than “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” makes the Syrian government responsible for the chemical weapons attack.
As part of a major push to win the backing of a divided Congress and skeptical American public, Obama’s top aides made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to press the case for “targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade” Assad’s capabilities “to carry out these terrible attacks again.”
“I call on members of Congress to come together and stand up for the kind of world we want to live in,” he said in a weekly radio address on Saturday, asserting that the “country will be stronger if we act together, and our actions will be more effective.”
The Syrian regime has consistently denied using chemical weapons. Syrian President Bashar Assad, most recently in an interview to PBS, excerpts of which were made public on Sunday, said there was no evidence his forces has used such weapons.
Speaking on the phone with PBS from Syria, interviewer Charlie Rose said Assad denied his army had any chemical weapons:
“He denied that he knew there was a chemical attack, notwithstanding what has been said and notwithstanding the videotape. He said there’s not enough evidence to make a conclusive judgment. He would not say even… even though I read him the lead paragraph of The New York Times today in the story about their chemical weapons supply. And he said I cannot confirm or deny that we do have them. He did, however, say that if in fact we do have them — and I am not going to say Yes or No — they are in centralized control and no one else has access to them.”
According to Rose, the most important thing Assad said is that “there has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.” Rather, the Syrian president once again suggested opposition troops were behind the attack.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in response that the evidence against Assad “speaks for itself.”