Russia-West split over Syria hits a new crisis point

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia's two-and-a-half year dispute with the West over the conflict in Syria intensified to a new level on Monday as Moscow warned Washington of the "extremely dangerous consequences" of military action against the Damascus regime.

The alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack outside Damascus has driven a new wedge between Russia and the West over Syria, with Moscow and Western capitals offering vastly different interpretations of the incident.

Whereas nations like Britain and France have said the attack was perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia has made clear Moscow believes that it was a ploy carried out by rebels with the aim of discrediting the Kremlin's traditional ally.

Western states are now clamouring for military action against Mr Assad over the attack but Russia is warning such intervention will destabilise the entire Middle East and would be based on false reasoning.

Any such action, like air strikes, would likely have to go ahead without a mandate from the UN Security Council where Russia and its ally China would be almost certain to block resolutions approving force.

"If force is used without a UN resolution it will lead to very serious consequences in relations between Russia and the United States and its NATO partners," said Mr Alexander Filonik, a Middle East expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned US Secretary of State John Kerry over the "extremely dangerous consequences" of launching military action against the Syrian regime, the foreign ministry said on Monday.

In a telephone call late Sunday, the Russian minister urged his US counterpart "to refrain from using military pressure against Damascus and not to give in to provocations".

Mr Lavrov told Mr Kerry of "mounting evidence" that the alleged chemical attack was a "pretence" set up by the rebel opposition with the aim of accusing the Damascus government.

The surge in tensions coincided with the appearance Monday in the Izvestia newspaper - one of the most slavishly pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia - of a huge interview with Assad.

Mr Assad used the interview to thank Russia for its support, ridicule as "nonsense" the idea his regime used chemical weapons and warn the United States of failure if it attacked Syria.

"London and Washington... just need a guilty verdict (on Assad). Any other verdict will be rejected," the head of the lower house of Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Mr Alexei Pushkov, wrote on Twitter.

Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich at the weekend compared the possible use of force against Syria to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was vehemently opposed by President Vladimir Putin as based on flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The US administration's claims of weapons justifying the invasion at the time later proved false.

"There are many similarities in the tactics of the Western states in Iraq," said Mr Filonik. "History is repeating itself." Russia has been chastened by its experience in the 2011 air campaign that ousted Libyan leader and longstanding Moscow ally Muammar Gaddafi which Moscow allowed to go ahead by abstaining at the Security Council.

With Mr Putin now back as president after a four-year stint as prime minister, Russian foreign policy has become newly assertive and never again has Russia turned itself into a diplomatic irrelevance by abstaining at the UN.

Russia also has military and political interests in Syria dating back to the USSR's alliance with Mr Assad's father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad that it is not willing to surrender in a hurry.

Moscow and the West have been at odds over the conflict since protests against Assad first erupted in March 2011 when Russia blocked UN Security Council sanctions against Damascus.

Russia has insisted it is not propping up Mr Assad and wants to move to a political transition through a peace conference jointly organised with the United States. But it has also insisted Mr Assad's exit should not be a precondition for a settlement.