Russian and French FMs meet on Syria, still divided on sarin gas attack

Lavrov insists rebels fighting Assad regime had used gas to "provoke foreign intervention."

Russian French FMs Moscow 17.9.13 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Russian French FMs Moscow 17.9.13 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The French and Russian foreign ministers met Tuesday in Moscow to discuss international efforts on disposing of Syria's chemical weapons, as the two made clear their nation's opposing views on who was behind an August 21 sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus which the US said killed more than 1,400 people.
Russia still suspects the attack was a provocation by Syrian opposition forces and says a newly released report by United Nations inspectors does not answer all of its questions about the attack, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Speaking following talks with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius a day after UN inspectors confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin, Lavrov took a different view to France and other Western states, which blame Syrian government forces for the attack.
"We have very serious grounds to believe that this was a provocation," Lavrov said of the attack.
Lavrov, whose country has been the Syrian government's most important ally in the civil war, said there had been "many provocations" by the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's government and added: "They were all aimed, over the last two years, at provoking foreign intervention."
He said the UN investigators' report proved that chemical weapons had been used but that "there is no answer to a number of questions we have asked," including whether the weapons were produced in a factory or home-made.
Speaking alongside Lavrov at a joint news conference after their talks, Fabius said the report was convincing.
"When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack, as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the [Assad] regime is behind it," Fabius said.
Despite their differences on who was behind the attack, Fabius said that a tough stance by the US and France, coupled with Russia's plan for the disposal of Syria's chemical weapons, has led to a change in the stance of the Syrian regime on the issue.
Moscow's proposal for the removal of the weapons by the international community has put a US military strike on the back-burner for now, but President Barack Obama has stressed that this option is not off the table.
Russia insists that there is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that the attack was the work of the regime, and has suggested that the weapons were deployed by the opposition that has spent more than two years trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. 
Syria responded to the news conference by accusing Western powers of trying to wreck prospects for a negotiated settlement to the country's 2-1/2-year conflict by imposing preconditions on the peace process and supporting rebel fighters.
Syrian state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying the comments by the Western powers "exposed the truth of their aims in Syria" and their desire to impose their will on the Syrian people.
"Discussion of political and constitutional legitimacy in Syria is the exclusive right of the Syrian people," it said.