BEIRUT – A Russian plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to avert Western missile strikes bogged down Tuesday when Moscow rejected U.S. and French demands for a binding U.N. resolution with “very severe consequences” for non-compliance.
The surprise Russian proposal, which Syria and the United States both accepted, would put President Bashar Assad’s regime’s chemical stockpile under international control before its eventual dismantling. The initiative – also cautiously endorsed by Britain and France – appeared to offer a way out of a crisis that raised the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.
But the plan ran aground as the world powers haggled over the crucial element of how to enforce it. Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called “a trap,” Paris and Washington are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify Syria’s disarmament. Russia, a close Assad ally and the regime’s chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France’s proposal as unacceptable.
The dizzying diplomatic maneuvering threatened what had been growing momentum toward a plan that would allow President Barack Obama to back away from military action. Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the United States, even as Obama seeks Congress’ backing for action – and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said early Tuesday during a trip to Moscow that Damascus “agreed to the Russian initiative as it should thwart the U.S. aggression against our country.”
Before departing Moscow in the evening, al-Moallem told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV that Syria would place its chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, other unspecified countries and the United Nations. Syria will also declare the chemical arsenal it long denied having, stop producing such weapons and sign conventions against them.
Mindful that Damascus could only be seeking to avoid Western military strikes, France said it would put forward a draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, making it enforceable with military action.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons program to inspection, place it under international control, and ultimately dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry “very serious consequences.” The resolution would condemn the Aug. 21 attack and bring those responsible to justice, he said.
“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.”
Obama threw his support behind the French resolution and discussed the matter with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. At the same time, he continued to push his original plan to win congressional authorization for U.S. airstrikes against Assad’s regime in case the diplomatic efforts fail.
The prospect of a deal that could be enforced militarily met swift opposition from Russia, which has provided economic, military and diplomatic support to Assad throughout the 2½-year conflict.
President Vladimir Putin said the plan can only work if “the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his French counterpart that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, the U.N. resolution authorizing force, his ministry said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in turn, said the U.S. rejects a Russian suggestion that the U.N. endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the Security Council president.
The U.S. has to have a full resolution – one that entails “consequences if games are played and somebody tries to undermine this,” he said.
Obama is sending Kerry to Geneva to discuss the issue with Russia’s foreign minister, a State Department official said. The two are to meet Thursday. The official was not authorized to discuss the mission publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in statement that Lavrov and Kerry spoke by telephone and the two “agreed to continue contacts, including the possibility of holding a personal meeting in the coming days.”
The U.S. and its allies have insisted Assad must be punished for last month’s chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. The Obama administration, France and others blame the regime, but Damascus says rebels – not its forces – were behind the attack. The United States has said more than 1,400 Syrians died; even conservative estimates from international organizations put the toll at several hundred.
Obama, who was to deliver a national address on Syria later Tuesday, cautiously welcomed the initial Russian proposal. But he said the United States strikes if it falls through.
“The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don’t just trust, but we also verify,” Obama told CBS on Monday. “The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed.”
Obama said the idea had been broached in his 20-minute meeting with Putin last week on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama said he directed Kerry to have more conversations with the Russians and “run this to ground.”
What has been left unaddressed in the flurry of diplomacy is the broader civil war in Syria, a conflict that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and forced more than 6 million Syrians – nearly a third of the population – to flee their homes.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, dismissed the Assad government’s turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment for what it called a crime against humanity. The coalition had been hoping for military strikes from abroad to tip the balance in the war of attrition between rebels and Assad’s forces.
In a statement Tuesday, the Coalition said Moscow’s proposal “aims to procrastinate and will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people.”
“Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes,” the group said.
The plan would allow Assad to avoid the damage that U.S.-led strikes, no matter how narrow and limited, would likely inflict on a Syrian military already stretched thin and under tremendous strain from the civil war. While Assad would be forced to relinquish his chemical arms stockpile, doing so is unlikely to deal a devastating blow to his war machine.
Nor is it likely to stanch the bloodshed. The U.S. and the Syrian opposition accuse the regime of using such weapons on several occasions, but the casualties from those attacks have been a mere fraction of the total death toll from the conflict.
“What does it change if you take the chemical weapons from Bashar Assad? Does it stop the real danger?” asked Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. “He’s not just killing us with chemical weapons. Bashar Assad is killing us with all of his weapons, by all his forces.”