MOSCOW (AP) — Russia chided its longtime ally Syria on Tuesday over its threat to use chemical weapons in case of a foreign attack, but Moscow gave no sign it was abandoning President Bashar Assad's regime, despite growing international condemnation over the violence in the Arab country.
Syria is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East and hosts the only naval base Moscow has outside the former Soviet Union. Russia has protected Syria from international sanctions and supplied it with weapons amid an escalating civil war.
On Monday, Syria threatened to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if it faces a foreign attack — its first-ever acknowledgement it possesses weapons of mass destruction.
In a statement that reflected a degree of irritation with Assad, the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Syria that it had ratified a global convention banning the use of chemical weapons. It added that Russia expects Syria to "unfailingly honor its international obligations."
The statement follows earlier Russian rebukes of Assad's heavy-handed use of force and slow pace of reforms.
But despite occasional criticism, Russia has staunchly refused to back international calls for the Syrian strongman to step down, saying that foreign players have no right to determine the nation's political future, and that it must be decided by Syrians themselves.
A 16-month uprising in Syria has morphed into a civil war has killed more than 19,000, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The escalating fighting is also feeding fears that Syria's war could spill across borders and spark a regional conflagration.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear Monday that Moscow would not join those pressuring Assad to step down. "If the Syrian leadership is ousted from power by unconstitutional means, the leadership and the opposition will trade places and the civil war will continue," Putin said.
On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed United Nations resolution threatening Assad's regime with sanctions — the third such double veto of a U.N. motion addressing the crisis. The next day, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution renewing the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria for another 30 days.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in an interview with TV host Charlie Rose to be broadcast Tuesday night on PBS that Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a "stooge" awaiting for orders from Moscow.
"This is a misperception that he is sitting there like waiting for the phone call from Moscow to tell him what to do," he said. "This is not the case."
Churkin said Assad has shown no interest in stepping down and if he did, it could aggravate the situation because he would most likely be replaced by even "more hard-line people in his entourage."
He urged an end to the fighting, saying the opposition's failure to enter into dialogue with the government is a recipe for continued conflict which could go on "maybe for years" with varying degrees of intensity.
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations