Syria says it accepts Russian weapons proposal

Published 7:58 am Tuesday, September 10, 2013

PARIS — Syria has accepted a Russian proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for dismantling, the Syrian foreign minister said Tuesday, amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at averting Western military action.

Speaking in Moscow, Walid al-Moallem said his government quickly agreed to the plan to “derail U.S. aggression” — an allusion to possible U.S.-led strikes over a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that Western powers blame on the Syrian regime. Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied the claim.

Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, is now working with Damascus to prepare a detailed plan of action that will be presented soon, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

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Al-Moallem brief statement sounded more definitive than his remarks a day earlier, when he said Damascus welcomed Russia’s initiative. He did not provide any details about how Syria might comply.

Western officials have expressed caution about possible stalling tactics or efforts to wriggle out of international pressure by Assad’s regime in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died in more than two years of civil war.

The response came after France announced Tuesday it would put forward a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to ultimately dismantle its chemical weapons program, seizing on the diplomatic opening from Russia a day earlier.

France, like Russia, a permanent member of the 15-nation council, will start the resolution process Tuesday under a part of the U.N. charter that is militarily enforceable, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a quickly arranged news conference in Paris. The proposal would also condemn the chemical weapons attack.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could resolve the crisis by ceding control of his chemical arsenal to the international community. Lavrov responded by promising to push Syria to place the weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly, to avert U.S. strikes. China too expressed support for the plan.

President Barack Obama said Monday that the Russian proposal could be “potentially a significant breakthrough,” but he remained skeptical that Syria would follow through.

Fabius said the French resolution would demand that Syria bring fully to light its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and scrap it — and a violation of that commitment would carry “very serious consequences.” The resolution would also seek to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Aug. 21 attack that killed hundreds, he said.

France expected a “nearly immediate” commitment from Syria, Fabius said. Russia had information about the chemical weapons stockpile, and expressed hope that this time a tough resolution on Syria would not be blocked: Russia and China have repeatedly impeded Western efforts to pressure Assad through the U.N. body.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the Russian proposal: “As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively.”

The chief of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, also expressed support for the proposal, telling reporters that it has been always in favor of a “political resolution.” The league has blamed the government for the attack, but says it doesn’t support military action without U.N. consent.

France is eager to seize on Russia’s “overture,” Fabius said, while expressing caution that French authorities “don’t want to fall into a trap” that could allow Assad’s regime to skirt accountability.

“We do not want this to be used as a diversion,” Fabius said. “It is by accepting these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday.”

Earlier, on Europe-1 radio, Fabius trumpeted Western pressure for leading to a “turnaround” in Russia’s position: “At first the Russians denied there was a chemical weapons stockpile in Syria. Then, they denied a chemical attack. So, they have changed — very good!” he said.

“Why did the Russians change? I think there are two main reasons,” Fabius added. “One is that our firmness is paying off, and secondly, they’ve realized the proof of chemical weapons is increasingly overwhelming.”

France and the United States have been the two Western powers that have most vocally called for military action against Assad’s regime over the chemical weapons attack, insisting that international accords against the use of chemical weapons needed to be enforced.

Fabius said that finding and destroying “more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons” would be difficult and would require international verification amid the tough backdrop of Syria’s civil war. He reiterated France’s stance that Assad must leave power: “We can’t imagine that someone who was responsible for 110,000 dead, it is said, can stay in power forever.”