Russia may send lawmakers to US to discuss Syria

Laura Mills - The Philippine Star

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin hopes to send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress, the Interfax news agency reported yesterday.

Russian legislators Valentina Matvienko and Sergei Naryshkin proposed that to Putin, saying polls have shown little support among Americans for armed intervention in Syria to punish its regime for an alleged chemical weapons attack.

The lawmakers said maybe US legislators can be persuaded to take a "balanced stance" on the issue. Putin supported the initiative, which would require formal approval by the Foreign Ministry.

Russia has sent legislators to the US before to try to persuade Congress about pending legislation. But sending a delegation to Washington to discuss Syria's civil war could be seen as a publicity stunt, given the strong positions Moscow already has taken as a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. The US has accused Russia of providing military support to Assad that has allowed Assad to cling to power during Syria's civil war.

On yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed evidence of the alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime as "absolutely unconvincing."

He said the evidence presented by the US to Moscow showed "there was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals." He did not describe the tests further.

The US said it has proof that Assad's regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children in a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus on Aug. 21. Syrian officials have denied the allegations, blaming rebel fighters.

Lavrov has brushed aside Western assertions of an alleged Syrian regime role. Russia, along with China and Iran, has staunchly backed Assad throughout the conflict.

"What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing," Lavrov said at Russia's top diplomatic school. "And when you ask for more detailed proof, they say all of this is classified so we cannot show this to you."

On Saturday Putin spoke out against the prospect of US military intervention in Syria, calling such a move "foolish nonsense" that "defies all logic."

The Russian legislators plan to head to the US just as President Barack Obama seeks congressional approval for a military strike on Assad's forces. Putin said a dialogue between legislators of the two countries was an essential part of reviving Russian-American relations.

In July 2012, a delegation of Russian legislators travelled to Washington in an unsuccessful bid to prevent Congress from passing sanctions against 18 Russians as part of a law named after Sergei Magnitsky. The whistleblowing Russian lawyer was arrested in 2008 for tax evasion after accusing Russian police officials of stealing $230 million in tax rebates.

That visit by legislators from Russia's parliament — which often rubber-stamps Putin's edicts — was later justified as the private initiative of a handful of Russian legislators, not an official government delegation.

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