Russia’s proposal to stave off threatened US strikes on Syria through a handover of chemical weapons won praise Tuesday even from backers of military action, as France said it would propose a UN resolution demanding that Damascus comply.
The initiative from the top diplomatic ally of President Bashar al-Assad was welcomed around the world, albeit cautiously in some quarters, including from President Barack Obama who said it could “potentially be a significant breakthrough.”
Only the opposition fighting Assad’s regime for control of Syria openly denounced the Russian idea, describing it as a political maneuver that will waste time and cause more deaths.
The plan, presented after a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem on Monday, urges Damascus to “place chemical weapons under international control and then to have them destroyed.”
Russia hopes the plan could avert threatened military strikes by the United States as retribution for a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on August 21 which the West believes was carried out by the regime.
Lavrov said on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) that Moscow was “literally right now, in these minutes” in talks with Damascus to develop a “concrete plan” for the Syrian regime to hand over its chemical weapons.
“And we expect to present this plan soon and we will be ready to work on it with the UN secretary general, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with the participation of members of the UN Security Council,” he added.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France, which has said it will join the United States in military action, said Paris would present a resolution to the United Nations later in the day demanding Syria place the weapons under international control.
Crucially, the minister said the resolution would be presented under chapter seven of the UN charter, which provides a basis for military action. Russia, a veto-wielding UN Security Council member, vehemently opposes outside military action.
“It will provide for extremely serious consequences in the event of Syria violating its obligations,” Fabius said.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the plan as an “opening” that “must be seized upon,” adding it showed international pressure had worked.
Speaking in Moscow on Monday, Muallem said he “welcomed” the Russian move without immediately accepting the proposal. It was not immediately clear if a still defiant Assad would agree to the measure.
Obama warned on Monday he had not taken military strikes off the table but, in agreeing to consider the Russian initiative, he effectively pushed back the timetable for possible action.
“I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world, has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move,” he told NBC television.
“And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years.”
Obama, who faces a tough task winning Congressional approval for even a limited military action, admitted that US lawmakers were not close to voting on the issue.
“I don’t anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” he told ABC news.
The Russian plan came in apparent response to remarks Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry who said that to avoid military action, Assad could turn over his chemical weapons to the international community.
But Obama said he had discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week’s G20 summit in Saint Petersburg and Lavrov acknowledged that the plan was “not entirely a Russian initiative.”
“It has emerged from the contacts we had with American colleagues, from yesterday’s statement by John Kerry,” he said.
The rebels battling Assad, who hoped to see US missiles rain down on the regime, denounced the idea as a plot by the Kremlin to protect Assad.
“The proposal of Lavrov is a political maneuver and is part of useless procrastination that will only result in more deaths and destruction for the Syrian people,” said an opposition statement.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed concern that the plan might be “a distraction tactic” but broadly welcomed it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Kremlin’s proposal as “interesting” but added that she hoped it would be put into place quickly and not simply be used to “buy time.”
The foreign ministry of China, which has backed Russia’s stance throughout the crisis, predictably said that “we welcome and support the Russian side’s suggestion.’
Iran, an ally of both Syria and Russia, “favorably welcomes” the Russian plan, foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afgham said. The plan also won backing from the Arab League.
For his part, Assad warned earlier in an interview with US television that the United States will “pay the price” if it attacks Syria.
According to US intelligence, on August 21 a chemical attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children gassed in their beds.
The crisis in Syria flared after Assad’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-regime protests that began in March 2011, and eventually degenerated into an all-out civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the UN. AFP