Russia hands Syria chemical weapons plan to US

Obama puts military action on hold, vows to give diplomacy a chance in sombre national address on Syria

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 9:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:58am

Russian officials have given the United States a plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control, ahead of a key meeting between Moscow and Washington’s top diplomats in Geneva, reports said on Wednesday.

“We handed over to the Americans a plan to place chemical weapons in Syria under international control. We expect to discuss it in Geneva,” Russian news agencies quoted a source in the Russian delegation to the talks as saying.

The source did not provide any further details on the plan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing to discuss on Thursday a Russian plan to collect and destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

Another source told state news agency ITAR-TASS that the meeting in Geneva could last several days.

“It appears that the meeting should start on Thursday and end on Friday, although it is not ruled out that it may last until Saturday,” the Geneva-based source was quoted as saying.

“It will be a bilateral meeting, there are no plans to involve the UN.”

ITAR-TASS said the meeting was set to take place at one of Geneva’s luxurious hotels.

Moscow came forward with the plan earlier this week, prompting US President Barack Obama to postpone his threat to strike Syria in response to an August 21 attack.

According to US intelligence, during that attack Syrian forces killed 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus using sarin gas.

President Barack Obama used a nationally televised address on Tuesday night to make his case for military action against Syria, even as he recognised that diplomatic steps could render attacks unnecessary.

He told war-weary Americans that the use of chemical weapons poses a threat to US security and that America, with modest effort, “can stop children from being gassed to death”.

Citing the new diplomatic efforts, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorise the use of military force against Syria - a vote he was in danger of losing. But he also said he has ordered the US military to remain prepared to carry out attacks if needed.

He blamed last month’s chemical attacks near Damascus squarely on Syrian President Bashar Assad and warned that a failure to act now would encourage tyrants and terrorists to use similar weapons.

“Our ideals and principals as well as our national security are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used,” he said.

Obama blamed last month’s chemical attacks near Damascus squarely on Syrian President Bashar Assad and warned that a failure to act now would encourage terrorists to use similar weapons

Obama’s speech was seen as a critical one for his presidency, though for reasons different than when plans for it were announced last week. It was intended as the climax of the administration’s pitch to persuade Congress to endorse military action in Syria.

Polls showed that Americans, wary of another Middle East conflict, oppose the strikes. Lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum declared they would vote against the measure.

Syria’s announcement this week that it would accept a Russian plan to turn over the chemical weapons stockpile added new uncertainty. Obama’s speech was closely watched for signs of how much stock he put in prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough.

He did recognise some potential. Obama noted he was sending his top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, to Geneva for talks on Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

He said he would continue his own discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and that the US and its allies would work with Russia and China to secure a UN Security Council resolution “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

Obama said the Russian initiative “has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”

 But the 16-minute speech generally made the case for military action. His arguments were both practical and emotional.

“If diplomacy now fails and the United States fails to act, he said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons” and “other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using” it. Over time, he added, the weapons could threaten US troops as well as allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

“America is not the world’s policeman,” Obama said. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”

The unpredictable chain of events stemmed from a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. US officials say more than 1,400 people died, including at least 400 children, and victims suffered uncontrollable twitching, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms typical of exposure to chemical weapons banned by international treaty.

Other casualty estimates are lower, and Assad has said the attack was launched by rebels who have been fighting to drive him from power in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians

Russia has blocked US attempts to rally the UN Security Council behind a military strike, But on Monday after a remark by Kerry, Russian officials spoke favourably about requiring Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons, and the Syrian foreign minister did likewise.

The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that his government was ready to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in line with Russia’s proposal in order “to thwart US aggression.” He also said Syria is prepared to implement a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control.

Obama has said frequently he has the authority as commander in chief to order a military strike against Assad regardless of any vote in Congress, and he has consistently declined to say whether he would do so if lawmakers refuse to approve the legislation he is seeking.

 The lukewarm support in Congress was underscored on Tuesday when liberal Democratic Senator Ed Markey and conservative Republican Representative Mark Mulvaney both announced their opposition.

 Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against legislation giving the president authority for limited strikes. “There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria,” he said.

 By contrast, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the top two Republicans in the House of Representatives, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi have endorsed Obama’s request.

Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said, “It would be inimical to our country’s standing if we do not show a willingness to act in the face of the use of chemical weapons and to act in a limited way to address that use alone.”