Russia sent mixed signals Wednesday on chemical weapons in Syria -- with its foreign ministry pinning the blame for one such attack on a rebel group hours after its president refused to close the door on a U.N.-approved strike against Syria's government.
As one of Syria's top allies -- and one with veto power on the U.N. Security Council -- Moscow time and again has stymied efforts to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government for launching attacks killing innocent civilians and using weaponry derided by the international community.
Such calls intensified after an alleged chemical weapons attack last month outside Damascus that, the U.S. government estimates, left upward of 1,400 people dead.
French and U.S. legislators spent Wednesday debating the merits of authorizing military strikes in Syria.
Russia has challenged assessments from officials in those nations and Great Britain that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons since the bloody civil war broke out in 2011.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he "doesn't exclude" backing a U.N. resolution for military action, though only if there is irrefutable proof Syria's government is behind the latest attack.
Samples taken by U.N. inspectors at that site were due at the world body's laboratories this week and will be tested "strictly according to internationally recognized standards," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
Putin also said, in the same interview with Russia's state Channel 1 television and The Associated Press, that it would be "absurd" for al-Assad's forces to use chemical weapons when they have the upper hand over rebel fighters.
The Syrian government not only has denied waging chemical weapon attacks, it has accused opposition fighters -- whom it routinely refers to as "terrorists" -- of using them.
Russia's foreign ministry appeared to echo that view, in at least one instance, on Wednesday. Referencing a March 19 attack (not the one on August 21) in an Aleppo suburb, the ministry said its experts -- in an analysis requested by Syrian authorities -- concluded that 26 civilian and Syrian military deaths from the spring attack can be traced to a "homemade" device not used by the Syrian army.
The projectile, the Russian ministry stated, was similar to those used in northern Syria by Bashaar Al-Nasr, an Islamist brigade that's part of the opposition Syria Liberation Front. In addition to hexogen, the Russian experts found the nerve agent sarin and another such chemical in its shell and soil samples.
How this revelation affects the dynamics in Syria, and internationally, is uncertain.
U.S. and some allied officials, for example, have expressed reluctance to accept such claims in the past. Moreover, they have indicated their willingness to wage targeted strikes in retaliation to the more recent strike, even without sweeping global support.
The competing claims suggest that world leaders -- as has been true in the two years since the conflict began, leading to more than 100,000 deaths according to a U.N. estimate -- aren't close to an agreement about who's to blame for the bloodshed and what to do about it.
Nor is there a sense the conflict is near an end. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, reported Syrian forces shelled more than 450 sites Wednesday, contributing to at least 72 more deaths.
The official Syrian News Agency, known as SANA, tweeted about Army troops clashes with terrorists, who it blamed for the death of national taekwondo team member Mohammed Ali Nu'meh.
Meanwhile, government officials, such as presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, remained critical of efforts of those who might strike without U.N. backing, saying they -- and not the Syrian government -- would pay a steep price.
"The Syrian people will never leave, they will always be here," Shaaban said Wednesday on Britain's Channel 4. "But those who lead the aggression will leave, and they will (live with) the results of this aggression."
French, U.S. lawmakers debate action
Echoing top U.S. officials, French leaders pressed lawmakers in Paris to back a military strike to send a clear message to al-Assad.
"Not to react would be to put peace and security of the entire region in danger, but also beyond that, our own security," French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told a combined session of the Senate and National Assembly, arguing that inaction would give those with chemical and nuclear weapons a green light to use them.
A similar debate is playing out in Washington, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 for a resolution backed by President Barack Obama to authorize a targeted U.S. military action. That decision sends the measure to the full chamber for a vote next week.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, again made the Obama administration's case Wednesday, this time to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kerry said some U.S. allies in the Middle East "have said that, if the United States is prepared to do the whole thing, ... they will carry that cost." The top U.S. diplomat also stated -- as he has previously -- that a military' strike would be focused on addressing the chemical weapons threat, and that it would be effective.
"We have absolute confidence that what our military undertakes to do, if it is ordered to do so, will degrade the capacity of Assad to use his weapons and serve as a very strong deterrent," Kerry said.