Putin Warns Netanyahu Not to Rush Blaming Syria for Chemical Attack

YERUSHALAYIM -
Putin, Netanyahu, Syria, Chemical Attack
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to refrain from making “groundless accusations” against the Assad regime in the chemical atrocity in Syria which continued to engage international outrage on Thursday.

In a phone conversation with Netanyahu, Putin “underlined that it’s unacceptable to make unfounded accusations against anyone until a thorough and unbiased international investigation,” according to the Kremlin.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had earlier warned the West against rushing to blame Syrian President Bashar Assad for the attack in Idlib, which has widely been attributed to an operation of the Syrian air force. He asserted that the West lacks evidence against Assad, and that eyewitness accounts and images provided by local activists can’t be taken as proof.

However, seeking to contain the raging controversy, the Kremlin also said that differences with Washington over the use of chemical weapons in Syria are unlikely to worsen U.S.–Russia relations. President Donald Trump on Wednesday used strong language in condemning the attack as “reprehensible…heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime…”

When asked at a press conference with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Wednesday what the U.S. will do about Syria, President Trump replied only, “You’ll see.”

Netanyahu initiated the phone call in order to convey his condolences over the St. Petersburg attack, Haaretz quoted the Prime Minister’s Office as saying. Netanyahu also told Putin that he was “deeply shaken by the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. The international community must complete the effort to clean Syria of chemical weapons as was agreed in 2013.”

While Netanyahu’s perennial adversaries, Ynet and Haaretz, characterized the call in headlines as “Putin Berates Netanyahu” and Putin “Rebukes Netanyahu, respectively, the official Russian statements did not use such language.

Only hours before the call, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly declared that the chemical attack was “directly ordered and planned by Syrian President Bashar Assad.”

Liberman added that he was “100 percent certain” of it. The defense minister said he did not know if Russia was involved in the attack.

Netanyahu himself had carefully sidestepped the issue of who was responsible for the chemical attack in his condemnation on Wednesday.

He implied as much, however, in saying that “Israel calls on the international community to complete its commitment from 2013 and remove the chemical weapons from Syria.”

Haaretz reported that Israeli intelligence sources assess Assad’s responsibility for the atrocity in Idlib as “highly probable.”

Meanwhile, Turkey said on Thursday that initial tests of samples from victims of a suspected chemical attack in northern Syria indicate that they were exposed to sarin gas, a highly toxic nerve agent, according to The Associated Press.

The Turkish Health Ministry said that “according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (Sarin),” without elaborating.

The Turkish Health Ministry said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would also test the samples.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Tugrul Turkes spoke for many in the international community when he said on Thursday that he is unconvinced by Russia’s claim that the Syrian were victims of toxic agents that were released by a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal.

In an interview with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, the Russian explanation was described as “unfulfilling.”

“If the Syrian regime knew that there were chemical weapons in the warehouse, it should have also known that it should not have attacked it,” he said.

He added that there is “no excuse. To me, this is evidence that strengthens the fact that it was the work of the (Syrian) regime and that it was an attack against civilians.”

Earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said in Damascus that toxic agents were released after the Syrian army bombed a warehouse belonging to the al-Qaida’s branch in Syria that contained chemical weapons.

Germany on Thursday welcomed President Trump’s strong condemnation of the attack.

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel says that President Trump’s statement on Wednesday criticizing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is “positive.”

He said European countries were worried about earlier U.S. comments suggesting that ensuring Assad leaves office was a lesser priority than fighting the Islamic State group.

Gabriel said on Thursday that those comments “irritated us in Europe at the time.”

He says “apart from the war on terror, it’s just as important to achieve a constitutional reform in Syria and free elections, and of course that can’t mean Assad staying in power permanently.”

Still, Gabriel warned against a military escalation and urged the U.S. to support U.N.-backed talks, the AP reported.

Germany has taken in 600,000 Syrian refugees in recent years.

The top humanitarian aid official with the U.N.’s Syria office said he believes an awareness of the need to protect civilians is “sinking in” after a deadly chemical weapons attack this week in Syria’s northern Idlib province.

Jan Egeland told the AP he hopes for a “watershed moment” with “all of these world leaders saying that say they have again woken up to the suffering of the civilians that we see every day.”

He told reporters that the world body needs a “green light” to bring help to 1 million people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas of the war-torn country. He also called for 72-hour cease fires in the key zones of fighting so aid can get in, and protection for hospitals and evacuees who choose to leave violent areas voluntarily