Syria Backs Russian Plan for Weapons
by VOA News September 10, 2013
The Syrian government has accepted a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling to avoid a possible U.S. military strike.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki said Tuesday the government backed the Russian initiative in order 'to spare Syrian blood.'
The U.N. press office said the U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency closed-door meeting later Tuesday on Syria at Russia's request.
In another diplomatic move, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris will submit a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council to condemn an August 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus and call for those behind it to be punished at the International Criminal Court.
'It's on the acceptance of these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday,' Fabius said. 'The Syrian people have suffered too much. We will not fall for delaying maneuvers therefore we need rapid results.'
Western powers blame the Damascus attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but that government and its longtime ally Russia accuse Syrian rebels of responsibility.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would allow military action if President Assad is uncooperative, and force his government to act quickly.
The Security Council has been unable to agree on previous measures sanctioning Syria, with Russia and China using their veto power to block three draft resolutions against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Russia preparing proposal
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that Russian officials are working with Syria to prepare their own 'concrete' plan, and expect to present a proposal to other nations soon.
Lavrov said the proposal was 'not entirely a Russian initiative.' He said the plan came from contacts Russia had with its American colleagues, and from a statement made Monday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Russian media quoted visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as telling the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament that Damascus agreed to Moscow's proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control to avoid a possible U.S. military strike.
Iran, China and the Arab League all said Tuesday they welcomed the Russian proposal.
Britain, whose parliament rejected the idea of military intervention, also welcomed the initiative. But, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the world needs to make sure the proposed dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons is not a 'distraction tactic'
'And so I think the onus is on Russia and on Syria to show that this is credible, that this could credibly be done,' Hague said.
Obama cautious on Russia plan
The developments came hours before U.S. President Barack Obama plans to deliver a major televised address on the Syrian crisis.
Obama has called the Russian plan to put Syria's stockpile under international control a potential breakthrough, but stressed that it would not have materialized without the threat of military action.
A White House official said Washington will begin discussions with the U.N. Security Council on Russia's proposal, which Mr. Obama discussed with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister Cameron on Tuesday.
In a series of interviews late Monday, Obama stressed that he 'overwhelmingly' prefers diplomacy in deterring Syria's use of chemical weapons.
'I believe I can make a very strong case to Congress as well as the American people about why we can't leave our children a world in which other children are being subjected to nerve gas,' Mr. Obama told PBS. 'And that it is in our interest, if we can take a limited step that makes a meaningful difference, it is worth it for us to do that. And I firmly believe that.'
Obama was expected to go to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with lawmakers in an effort to gain support for a measure authorizing U.S. military action against Syria.
In his Monday interview, Obama acknowledged there may not be enough support among lawmakers to approve such a measure.
The Senate was due to hold a preliminary vote on Wednesday, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed the vote late Monday to give more time to consider the new Russian proposal.
Complications of dismantling process
Analyst Joanna Kidd of London's King's College said any handover of Syria's chemical weapons would take a long time, if it could be done at all.
'It is a job that would take several months to do. And of course, one shouldn't forget that obviously there is a civil war going on in Syria that would greatly complicate the process,' Kidd said.
She said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, could provide inspectors for such a process. But there may not be enough of them to cover all of Syria, and they may not be willing to go into the middle of the civil war to do inspections.
And the professor said there is another reason the idea probably wouldn't work.
'Chemical weapons really seem to be quite important to the Syrian regime, and it's believed that Syria has manufactured a range of chemical weapons in the past years.'
History professor Allan Lichtman at Washington's American University said the Russian interest in the new approach could be legitimate.
'I think it is a serious proposal from the Russians for the simple reason that the Russians have really taken a beating in international world opinion because of their seeming support for the Assad regime, which everyone knows is a horrible, brutal, murderous regime that should have no support from anyone. So this is kind of a face-saving move on Putin's part.'
Syrian opposition reacts
Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the main opposition Syrian National Coalition criticized that proposal, saying Mr. Assad would be unlikely to follow through and would use the step to 'buy more time to kill more Syrians.'
'We have somebody who used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, and now, because he might be willing to hand over his chemical weapons, he is going to go unpunished,' Saleh said.
'Fourteen hundred people were killed in the suburbs of Damascus and now we have to tell those people, your life was worth nothing, because Bashar al-Assad is showing signs that he might put his chemical weapons under international supervision,' he said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday China welcomes the Russian initiative.
'As long as it is a proposal that helps ameliorate the current tense situation in Syria, is beneficial to maintaining peace and stability in Syria and the region and is beneficial to a political resolution, the international community ought to give it positive consideration,' Hong said.
China has consistently joined Russia in vetoing United Nations resolutions imposing sanctions or criticizing the Syrian government. Beijing insists that political dialogue is the only solution to the conflict.
US presses China on Syria
U.S. Under Secretary for Defense Policy, James Miller, arrived in Beijing this week on a trip originally aimed at bolstering defense ties, but which also included discussions on Syria.
He told reporters Tuesday that he spoke with Chinese authorities about backing military action against Syrian government targets in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by Syrian troops.
Miller said that China has an interest in preventing the use of chemical weapons especially to set an example for its neighbor North Korea.
'I emphasized the massive chemical weapons arsenal that North Korea has and that we didn't want to live in a world in which North Korea felt the threshold for using chemical weapons had been lowered.'
Rights group blames government
Also Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Syrian forces were 'almost certainly responsible' for the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus.
The group said in a new report that the type of rockets used, photos and videos from the attack sites, and interviews with victims and doctors all implicate government forces.
'This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning,' said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Syria has accused rebels of carrying out the attacks, an allegation Human Rights Watch says lacks credibility and does not match the evidence.
Reporting by Jessica Golloher in Moscow, Al Pessin in London and Shannon Van Sant in Beijing.
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