Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Friday that the Syrian leader didn't use chemical weapons against his people, saying the recent attack that killed scores of civilians was a "provocation" against President Bashar Assad.
Speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin made one of his strongest rejections of blaming Assad's forces for the chemical attack in April. The attack in northern Syria killed at least 90, including many children.
"We are absolutely convinced that it was a provocation. Assad didn't use the weapons," Putin said. "It was done by people who wanted to blame him for that."
He added that Russian intelligence had information that a "similar scenario" was to be implemented elsewhere in Syria, including near Damascus.
"Thank God, they were smart enough not to do that after we released information about it," he said.
The attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun caused an international uproar as images of the aftermath, including quivering children dying on camera, were widely broadcast.
Russia, one of Assad's closest allies, and the Syrian government have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. Following an equally fatal chemical attack in 2013, Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States and declared a 1,300-ton chemical arsenal when it joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
That stockpile has been destroyed, but the organization continues to question whether Damascus declared everything in its chemical weapon program.
This year, the new U.S. administration led by Donald Trump was quick to react. In a one-off, the U.S. struck a Syrian air base with cruise missiles only days after the April 4 attack after accusing Assad's military of killing scores of civilians with a nerve agent launched from the base.
Putin said Russia had offered the U.S. and its allies the chance to inspect the Syrian base for traces of the chemical agent and criticized them for their refusal to do so.
Last week, a team from the international chemical weapons watchdog found exposure "to sarin or a sarin-like substance" in samples it examined from the April 4 attack and said it is planning a trip to visit the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria.
The team has conducted interviews with victims of the alleged attack and witnessed the collection of biomedical samples from casualties. It also received samples from dead animals reported to have been close to the site of the incident and environmental samples from close to the impact point.
OPCW fact-finding teams have been investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria but aren't mandated to determine responsibility for attacks. That has been left to a joint U.N.-OPCW investigative body.
Putin said Assad is not without mistakes but investigation into his adversaries' actions must also be pursued.
"Has Assad make mistakes? Yes, quite a few. And what about people confronting him? Are they angels? Who are they who kill people there, execute children? Are they people who we should support?" he said.
Putin said he wanted to avoid Syria meeting the same fate as Somalia or Libya, where militias rule.
"Primarily, we are defending not Assad but the Syrian statehood. We don't want to see the situation there become like it is in Libya, Somalia or Afghanistan," he said.
Asked about his view of Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Putin refrained from criticizing the move and called for a constructive dialogue on efforts needed to curb global warming.
He underlined the importance of the Paris climate accord, but noted that it's a framework agreement offering a broad room for maneuver for each signatory nation.
Putin also said that Trump's promise to negotiate new conditions for the U.S. leaves hope for reaching a compromise before the Paris deal takes effect, adding that U.S. participation is essential for the success of global efforts.
He joked that Trump's move made him a convenient person to blame for any spell of bad weather, including wet snow in Moscow on Friday, an extremely rare occurrence in the summer.
"Now we can dump it all on him and American imperialism," Putin said.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut. Isachenkov reported from Moscow.