Russia took a calibrated step forward to ward-off an internationally supported attack on Syria by making it explicit that the enforcement of the deal, brokered in Geneva by Moscow and Washington, for the elimination of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, would not be under Chapter 7 provisions of the Security Council, which can be invoked to authorise an attack.

After a meeting on Tuesday with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clearly stated that: “The Security Council resolution, which will endorse the decision of the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] executive council, will not be over Chapter 7 [which allows the use of force]. We said it distinctly in Geneva and the document that we agreed upon does not say a single word about it.”.

The timing of the meeting of the two Foreign Ministers was significant as it followed the release of the U.N. report on the killings of hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.

It also came a day after Turkey shot down a Syrian helicopter, raising border tensions.

Turkey scrambled its F-16 fighter jets on Monday to shoot down Syria’s Russian built Mi-17 helicopter, claiming that it was forced to take the decision after the helicopter intruded two km inside Turkish airspace.

“It [the helicopter] was continuously warned by our air defence but as the violation continued, it fell on Syrian soil at 2:25 pm (1125 GMT), having been hit by missiles from our planes,” said Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, in Ankara.

‘Hasty response’

Syria responded angrily to the shooting, slamming Turkey for deliberately escalating border tensions, which are already steeped in hostility because of Ankara’s active and open support to the opposition that wants to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrians claim that the chopper was “heading back” after it had mistakenly entered Turkish airspace.

“The hasty response from the Turkish side, especially as the aircraft was on its way back and was not charged with any combat missions, is proof of the true intentions of [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan’s government toward Syria, to increase tensions and escalate the situation on the border between the two countries,” said Syria’s armed forces in a statement reported by the state news agency SANA.

Assad culpable?

The U.N. document established that chemical weapons were indeed used in the incident, but did not pin any blame on the source of the attack.

However, the United States, Britain and France immediately interpreted the findings of the report as confirmation that the government of Mr. Assad had carried out the attack — a view that was hotly contested by Moscow. Susan Rice, National Security Adviser of U.S. President Barack Obama, asserted that the report “reinforces our assessment that these attacks were carried out by the Syrian regime, as only they had the capability to mount an attack in this manner”.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was not far behind in citing the findings as “fully consistent” with previously held U.K. position that the Assad government was responsible for the attack.

But Vitaly Chrukin, the Russian representative at the U.N., warned that it would be wrong to draw any hasty conclusions. He pointed out that the report did not present any “bulletproof data or conclusions” on the perpetrators of the strike.

“The report is diligent but very technical. It avoids categorical judgments and inferences, and it needs to be studied,” he observed.

Mr. Churkin stressed that the charge that the opposition was responsible for a false flag attack, which would be blamed on the Syrian government “cannot be shrugged off” either.

(With inputs from Vladimir Radyuhin in Moscow)

Correction

>>“Differences persist over Syria” (Sept. 18, 2013, International page) erroneously described Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the President of Turkey. It should have been Prime Minister.

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