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U.S. Diplomat: Russian Interests in Syrian Chemical Disarmament Remain

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem take their seats at a January press conference in Moscow. Tensions over Ukraine have raised questions over Russia's role in a range of international initiatives, but a senior U.S. envoy on Thursday said a multilateral effort to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal is still in Moscow's "self-interest." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem take their seats at a January press conference in Moscow. Tensions over Ukraine have raised questions over Russia's role in a range of international initiatives, but a senior U.S. envoy on Thursday said a multilateral effort to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal is still in Moscow's "self-interest." (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

A senior U.S. diplomat stressed Russia's "self-interest" in eliminating Syria's chemical arms, as a rift grew between Moscow and other capitals over Ukraine.

Russia's key role in a global operation to destroy the weapons held by its Damascus ally is "not a favor to the United States," but rather it reflects shared objectives, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said on Thursday. Moscow laid the groundwork for the disarmament initiative last September, after an Aug. 21 nerve-gas strike in Syria's civil war prompted threats of foreign military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

"I believe Russia remains committed to the object here, which is the removal and destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile," Burns said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

The senior envoy made his comments in response to questions from Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who asked how an international crisis over Russia's armed intervention in Ukraine has affected multilateral efforts to pull Assad's chemical weapons out of conflict-torn Syria. Because of  tensions over Ukraine, NATO this week suspended its plans to team with Russia in guarding the Syrian government's deadliest warfare chemicals during destruction at sea.

Burns minimized the Ukraine standoff's potential impact on the chemical-removal effort, which has encountered delays recently. U.S. officials and their allies have accused Assad's regime of intentional foot-dragging. Last September, Russia and the United States hammered out a plan calling for the destruction of the entire Syrian chemical arsenal by the middle of 2014.

"By the beginning of next week about 35 percent of that stockpile should be removed from Syria," Burns said. "It's still possible to meet the 30th of June target that's been set, and I think it's vitally important to do that, and that's an area where I believe Russia has a self-interest in trying to ensure that that happens."

Moscow has made "a very visible and public commitment" to eliminating the Syrian government's chemical arsenal, Burns said in his testimony. "I think [Russia] has a self-interest in trying to ensure that that happens. And you know, we will certainly do everything we can to help ensure it does."

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