(CNSNews.com) – President Obama prepared to take part Thursday in a Russia-hosted G20 summit overshadowed by the Syria crisis hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Obama’s secretary of state of “lying” about the extent of al-Qaeda’s presence among the anti-Assad rebels.
Further signs of the tensions between the two governments were evident when the Pentagon tried to walk back comments made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill earlier Wednesday, linking Russia to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
The two-day G20 leaders’ summit in St. Petersburg has long been predicted to be a difficult one for Obama. But the rhetoric has sharpened noticeably in recent days, with Putin accusing the U.S. of “a lack of respect” for its international partners, and Secretary of State John Kerry accusing the Russian leader of willfully ignoring evidence of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.
On Wednesday, it reached a new level, with Putin calling Kerry a liar.
During a televised meeting of the Russian presidential human rights council, Putin referred to testimony given by Kerry on Capitol Hill in recent days.
“I watched the debates in Congress,” the state-run Voice of Russia quoted Putin as saying. “A congressman asks Mr. Kerry: ‘Is al-Qaeda there? There has been rumor that they are gaining strength.’ He says: ‘No, I am telling you firmly: there are none of them there.’”
“The principal combative unit [among the Syrian rebels] is the so-called Nusra, which is an al-Qaeda unit,” Putin continued. “And they know this. I even felt quite awkward. We are communicating with them and assume that they are decent people and he is telling an outright lie. He knows that he is lying. This is sad.”
Putin seemed to be referring to an exchange during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing between Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Kerry, in which the secretary of state did not actually say “there are none of them there” or words to that effect, although he did play down the al-Qaeda presence:
Sen. Johnson told Kerry: “This is more of an impression I have as opposed to any exact knowledge, but it seems like initially, the opposition was maybe more Western-leaning, more moderate, more democratic, and as time has gone by, it’s degraded, become more infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Is that basically true?”
“No, that is – no, that is actually basically not true. It’s basically incorrect,” Kerry said. “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.”
Although he minimized the extremist element in that response, at another point during Tuesday’s hearing Kerry did acknowledge the presence of terrorists.
An alternative to a negotiated settlement to the conflict, he said, could see Syria implode and disintegrate into enclaves: “There are huge ungoverned spaces, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, others become more of a threat to our friends in the region, and the region becomes much more of a sectarian conflagration.”
In another exchange, Kerry disputed the notion that by degrading Assad’s capacity the U.S. will strengthen extremists including al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, telling Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that it will “actually make the opposition stronger” – referring to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army under Gen. Salim Idriss.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Kerry said it was “just not true” that a majority of Syrian rebels comprised “al-Qaeda or bad guys,” and that he estimated that “15 to 25 percent might be in one group or another that we would consider bad guys.”
‘A blatant lie’
Also on Wednesday, Hagel raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill and generated headlines in Russia when he appeared to accuse Russia of providing the Syrian regime with chemical weapons.
“Where did the chemical weapons come from?” asked Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) at the House committee hearing.
“Well, there’s no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons, significant stockpiles of chemical weapons –” Hagel replied.
“From a particular country?”
“Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying them with those chemical weapons,” Hagel said. “They make some themselves.”
Russian media picked up on the comments and quoted Igor Korotchenko, the editor of a Kremlin-affiliated defense magazine, as calling them “a blatant lie” and saying they were comparable to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments at the United Nations in 2003 about Iraq’s anthrax stocks.
“The United States has powerful and effective special services,” the RIA Novosti state news agency quoted Korotchenko as saying. “Hagel could have turned to them to obtain comprehensive information that the Russian Federation has never supplied weapons of mass destruction to anyone, even its closest allies.”
Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a statement after the hearing that Hagel had been referring to conventional weapons – but also said that some of the materials Russia has provided to Damascus “can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program.”
“In a response to a member of Congress, Secretary Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia. The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program,” the statement said.
“Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program. We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime.”
Moscow’s strong opposition to military intervention against its ally in Damascus is not likely to be moderated by an incident in the Syrian capital Wednesday in which a mortar shell fired by anti-Assad rebels landed near the Russian Embassy.
“The Russian side once again reiterates its call to those who can influence Syrian militants to exert their influence so that such barbaric acts cease,” a foreign ministry official told RIA Novosti. The official said no staff had been injured and that “the embassy continues to operate as normal.”