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Syria gas attack: Does Russia know something that the US doesn't?

As diplomats negotiate a new UN resolution, Russia claims new evidence implicating Syrian rebels in last month's gas attack.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (r.) meets Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Rybakov's contention was the latest effort aimed at bolstering Moscow's arguments about last month’s gas attack near Damascus that killed more than 1,000 people.

SANA/AP

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Russian officials said Wednesday that they had compelling new evidence implicating Syria’s rebels in last month’s gas attack near Damascus, saying US and other Western officials have drawn wrong conclusions from a UN inspectors report. 

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov’s contention was the latest effort aimed at bolstering Moscow’s arguments about the Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,000 people.

The United States and some European allies say security forces loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad are to blame. But neither the West nor the Russians have publicly released definitive evidence on the attack.

Independent military experts, rights activists, and others have been poring over publicly available information, including the report by the UN inspection team released Monday. Many have concluded that the weaponry used – spent rocket shells with Cyrillic lettering on them, for example, and the direction they were fired from— points to Syrian government forces.  A Washington-based group, the Arms Control Association, said the material gathered by UN inspectors “provides additional and substantial evidence that Assad’s forces were responsible.”

Mr. Rybakov, who is currently visiting Damascus, however, told the Kremlin-funded RT media network Wednesday, that Syrian authorities have turned over fresh information indicating that rebel forces have access to sarin gas and have the means to use it.

"That is really true. Just now we were given evidence. We need to analyze it," Mr. Rybakov said.

He did not detail the new evidence, but said the UN inspectors’ report was incomplete and must be supplemented by more thorough investigations. The head of the UN team said Wednesday the team would be returning to Syria as early as next week.

"That [UN] report distorted, we think, conclusions that were drawn by the group of experts," Rybakov told RT.

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"We are amazed by the way some far-reaching analysis has been produced on the basis of what we believe is a rather deficient amount of information,” he said.   

The gas attack and the military strikes the US threatened in response led to Syrian officials acknowledging they had the weapons, and agreement between Russia and the US on a plan to dismantle the chemical weapons arsenal. But the sides remain at loggerheads over the terms of the UN Security Council resolution that would authorize.

Moscow complains that the West, assuming that the Assad regime is guilty, wants tough sanctions or the threat of military force to be included in the resolution if Assad fails to fully comply with the UN's demands.

Some experts quoted by RT, such as former Pentagon official Michael Maloof, and other Russian media insist the West has failed to examine reports that Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on stocks of sarin gas, either through home production or seizures of government stockpiles, and that they have used such weapons in the past.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it filed a 100-page report with the UN in July, detailing evidence that a sarin gas attack in the city of Aleppo last March, which killed 26 people, was carried out by the rebels.

Moscow says that when the the UN team returns to Syria, it should concentrate on discovering the truth behind the Aleppo incident and two other incidents that remain unresolved.

The UN inspectors' report, which only looked into the Aug. 21 incident, was "very selective and incomplete, without regard to the circumstances, and was compiled without the collection of materials in the other three sites," Ryabkov said.

Many experts say it would be hard enough to determine the truth even under the best of circumstances. In this case, however, intelligence agencies of the US and Russia are only releasing snippets of information to support their sweeping assertions.

"I don't think either Moscow or Washington really wants the full truth to become known, because that would call for decisive measures that neither is really willing to take," says Vladimir Sazhin, a Middle East expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

"The Assad regime possesses these weapons, but they are so dispersed around Syria that it seems probable that the rebels have also seized some stockpiles. It's fully possible, morally and technically, that both sides have used sarin gas in this conflict," he adds.

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