Putin softens tone as Obama gains support for Syria strike

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, Sept 3, 2013. Mr Putin on Wednesday, Sept 4, 2013, struck a more conciliatory tone ahead of this week's G-20 summit, saying Mosco
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, Sept 3, 2013. Mr Putin on Wednesday, Sept 4, 2013, struck a more conciliatory tone ahead of this week's G-20 summit, saying Moscow would take decisive action if the West proves who used chemical weapons in Syria. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday struck a more conciliatory tone ahead of this week's G-20 summit, saying Moscow would take "decisive" action if the West proves who used chemical weapons in Syria.

Mr Putin's comments came as lawmakers in the United States began rallying behind President Barack Obama's plan to launch military strikes against Syria over a suspected poison gas attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

And as Mr Obama sought to cobble together an international coalition to back his plans for military intervention, France was on Wednesday to hold an emergency parliamentary debate on the Syrian crisis.

Mr Putin, in an interview apparently aimed at presenting a more pragmatic face to the world ahead of the G-20 summit in St Petersburg, said he did not exclude Russia agreeing to US-led military strikes if it can be proven Syria's regime carried out the Aug 21 attack. However, he told state-run Channel One television, the West still needs to put forward watertight proof of the circumstances of the attack, which some Russian officials have blamed on rebels.

If there is clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them, Russia "will be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way", Mr Putin said. Asked whether Russia would agree with US-led military strikes if it is proven that the Syrian regime carried out the attack, Mr Putin replied: "I do not exclude that."

He said, however, it would be unacceptable for the West to go ahead with military action against the regime of Mr Bashar al-Assad without the assent of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto-wielding permanent membership.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the US has frequently lamented Moscow's support for Mr Assad and its decision to block any UN Security Council action to censure him or to use military action against his regime. With relations between the Kremlin and the White House considered as brittle as they have been since the end of the Cold War, no official bilateral meeting is planned between Mr Obama and Mr Putin at the G-20 summit.

A White House official said on Wednesday, however, that the two presidents are expected "to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G-20". The official added that Mr Obama was scheduled to hold bilaterals with the leaders of France and China on the sidelines of the summit.

Since British lawmakers voted down a bid to take any military action against Mr Assad's regime, Washington has found a strong partner in France but is seeking other allies.

Paris backs punitive military strikes against the regime and has urged its European Union partners to unite in response to the Syria crisis. French President Francois Hollande can order military action without parliamentary approval, but a poll on Tuesday showed nearly three quarters of French people want Parliament to vote on the issue.