BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Russia accused NATO on Friday of moving towards involvement in the Syrian conflict, three days after the alliance decided to station Patriot missiles to protect Turkey from spillover from the violence.
The charge came from Russia’s new ambassador to NATO, and came in spite of NATO assurances that the Patriots, which will be placed near Turkey’s border with Syria, are intended purely for defensive purposes.
“This is not a threat to us, but this is an indication that NATO is moving towards engagement and that’s it,” Alexander Grushko told reporters.
“We see a threat of further involvement of NATO in the Syrian situation as a result of some provocation or some incidents on the border, if they take place,” he said.
Grushko appeared to take a tougher line than Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said after talks with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday that Moscow would not protest against the deployment of the Patriot missiles.
Lavrov had previously warned that the deployment could increase the risk of new weaponry being used in the conflict, but is now involved in talks on ending the crisis with the United states and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Grushko said that the Syrian government, locked in a 20-month-old conflict that has killed 40,000 people, had assured Russia it had no plans to use chemical weapons.
“We are closely watching the situation and if we see that chemical weapons are being transferred somewhere, we (will) make the necessary requests about this situation,” he said.
“Our interlocutors that represent the government of Syria make it very clear they do not have any plans on utilising chemical weapons and that chemical weapons are under stable control,” said Grushko, a former deputy foreign minister.
NATO agreed on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to Turkey while voicing grave concern about reports Damascus may be preparing to use chemical weapons.
U.S. President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders have warned that using chemical weapons would cross a red line and have consequences, which they have not specified.
NATO has stressed that the Patriots, which can shoot down incoming missiles, are intended purely to defend Turkey.
Germany’s cabinet agreed on Thursday to send Patriots and up to 400 soldiers to Turkey. The Netherlands and the United States also plan to provide Patriot batteries.
Turkey has repeatedly scrambled jets along its frontier with Syria and has responded in kind when shells from Syria came down inside its borders, fuelling fears the civil war could spread.
Grushko, who President Vladimir Putin appointed as NATO envoy in October after leaving the post vacant for 10 months, said NATO had reassured Moscow it had no plans to set up a no-fly zone over Syria and no plans for military intervention.
But Russia is suspicious of NATO’s intentions following last year’s Libya conflict when Moscow accused NATO of overstepping a U.N. Security Council mandate for a no-fly zone to help rebels overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia and China oppose foreign intervention in Syria, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have raised pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to stop the bloodshed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Dublin on Thursday, with signs emerging Russia might curb its support for Assad.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad accused Western powers on Thursday of whipping up fears over chemical weapons as a “pretext for intervention”. He said Syria would not use chemical weapons against its own people.
Editing by Jon Boyle