The Pentagon walked back Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assertion on Wednesday that Russia supplied the Syrian government with chemical weapons.
When testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Hagel was asked where Syria’s chemical weapons came from, and responded: “Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”
When pressed on the issue, a Pentagon spokesperson clarified Hagel’s remarks Wednesday evening with this statement:
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. 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.
Hagel's initial statement comes at a particularly tricky time for U.S.-Russian relations. Russia’s support for the Assad regime in Syria has further strained an already fractious relationship, as President Obama makes the case for military action in Syria. Further complicating matters is that the G-20 summit is set to begin in St. Petersburg on Thursday. President Obama is attending, but is not scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama had been scheduled to meet with Putin privately before the summit, but canceled in the wake of Russia’s granting Edward Snowden asylum.