Syria accepted a Russian proposal yesterday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from US military strikes but serious differences emerged between Russia and the US that could obstruct a UN resolution to seal a deal.
Even as the White House said it was determined to push ahead with a congressional resolution authorising force, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the weapons plan would only succeed if Washington and its allies rule out military action.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said in a statement shown on Russian state television that Damascus was committed to the Russian initiative.
“We want to join the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons. We are ready to observe our obligations in accordance with that convention, including providing all information about these weapons,” Moualem said.
“We are ready to declare the location of the chemical weapons, stop production of the chemical weapons, and show these (production) facilities to representatives of Russia and other UN member states,” he said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington believes the proposal must be endorsed by the UN Security Council “in order to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have”.
Moscow has previously vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian government over the conflict.
The latest proposal “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the US in this sense reject the use of force”, Putin said in televised remarks.
Kerry and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action was critical to forcing Assad to bend on his chemical weapons.
“For this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of a US military action - the credible, real threat of US military action - must continue,” Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
US officials said Kerry would meet Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow for further talks.
Amid the whirlwind of diplomatic activity focused on the response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Damascus neighbourhood on August 21, the civil war resumed in earnest, President Bashar al-Assad’s jets again bombing rebel positions in the capital.
The US and its allies remain sceptical about the Russian proposal and President Barack Obama sought to keep the pressure on Syria by maintaining his drive for congressional backing for a possible military strike while exploring a diplomatic alternative.
France wants a binding UN Security Council resolution that would provide a framework for controlling and eliminating the weapons and says that Syria would face “extremely serious” consequences if it violated the conditions.
Britain and the US said they would work on quickly formulating a resolution.
The UN Security Council initially called a closed door meeting asked for by Russia to discuss its proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, but the meeting was later cancelled at Russia’s request.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative.
“It was extremely well played by the Russians, but we didn’t want someone else to go to the UN with a resolution that was weak. This is on our terms and the principles are established. It puts Russia in a situation where they can’t take a step back after putting a step forward,” said a French diplomatic source.
Russia, however, made clear it wanted to take the lead.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his French counterpart that Moscow would propose a UN draft declaration supporting its initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia also told France that a proposal to adopt a Security Council resolution holding the Syrian government responsible for the possible use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.
The US and France had been poised to launch missile strikes to punish Assad’s forces, which they blame for the chemical weapons attack. Syria denies it was responsible and, with the backing of Moscow, blames rebels for staging the attacks to provoke US intervention.
The White House said Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande had agreed in a telephone call on their preference for a diplomatic solution, but that they should continue to prepare for “a full range of responses”.
Obama asked Congress yesterday to delay votes on authorising military strikes in order to give Russia time to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons, according to US senators.
“What he (Obama) wants is to check out the seriousness of the Syrian and the Russian willingness to get rid of those chemical weapons in Syria. He wants time to check it out,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin told reporters.
The White House said Obama, who has called the Russian proposal a potential breakthrough, would still push for a vote in Congress to authorise force when he makes a televised address to Americans.
But the US congressional vote now appeared more about providing a hypothetical threat to back up diplomacy, rather than to unleash immediate missile strikes. A bipartisan group of senior members of Congress was working on a resolution that would take into account the Russian proposal.
The rebel Syrian National Coalition decried a “political manoeuvre which will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause more death and destruction to the people of Syria”.
Assad’s warplanes bombed rebellious districts inside the Damascus city limits yesterday for the first time since the poison gas attacks. Rebels said the strikes demonstrated that the government had concluded the West had lost its nerve.