Momentum to avoid Western missile strikes on Syria intensified yesterday, as President Bashar al-Assad's regime accepted a plan to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and France pitched a UN resolution to verify the disarmament.
With US domestic support for a strike uncertain and little international appetite to join forces, the developments could blunt a thorny diplomatic problem. But neither effort attempts to end or even address the civil war and the main Syrian opposition bloc dismissed the plan as a largely meaningless measure that would allow Assad free rein to fight on with conventional weapons.
Syria's foreign minister said the government would accept a plan from Russia, its most powerful ally, to give up its chemical weapons in order "to thwart US aggression," offering a diplomatic option for how to respond to the August 21 chemical weapons attack that the West blames on Assad, but which Syria denies.
France, a permanent Security Council member, would start the process at the United Nations under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which is militarily enforceable, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
US President Barack Obama threw his support behind the resolution even as he pushed the idea of US airstrikes if that effort fails. British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would join France and the US in putting forward the proposal.
Fabius said the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons programme to inspection, place it under international control, and ultimately dismantle it. A violation, he said, would carry "very serious consequences".
As a new report by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism presented an inventory of Syria's chemical munitions production and storage facilities, Fabius warned that finding and destroying "more than 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons" would be very difficult.
The details of the French proposal remained vague, but Fabius said he expected a "nearly immediate" commitment from Syria. Within two hours, he had a response from his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. "We agreed to the Russian initiative as it should thwart the US aggression against our country," he said. Moallem's comments amounted to the first formal admissions by top Syrian officials that Damascus even possesses chemical weapons.
Russia was now working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action that would be presented to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
China expressed support for the plan. "As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
Obama, who was scheduled to give a nationally televised address on Syria, reached back into history to make his case against Syria, even as he cautiously welcomed the early developments.
"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama told CBS. "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."
The Russian diplomatic initiative emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry alluding to such a deal. Lavrov quickly responded and Syria's acceptance came less than 24 hours later.
Despite the breakthrough, top Obama administration officials urged Congress to keep the pressure on Syria. Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action was critical to forcing Assad to bend.
"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.
While the Senate delayed a planned vote authorising military force, Kerry said Obama might speak to congressional leaders on the "when and how" of an eventual vote.