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Syria vows to give up chemical weapons

By Phil Stewart and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
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 United States 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-Moualem 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 United Nations 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 United States in this sense reject the use of force,” Putin said in televised remarks.
Kerry and US Defense 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 on Thursday 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 United States 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 United States said they would work on quickly formulating a resolution.
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.
Russia 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 United States 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 on Tuesday 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.
Whether international inspectors can neutralise chemical weapons dumps while war rages in Syria remains open to question.
Western states believe Syria has a vast undeclared chemical arsenal. Sending inspectors to destroy it would be hard even in peace and extraordinarily complicated in the midst of a war.
The two main precedents are ominous: UN inspectors dismantled the chemical arsenal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s but left enough doubt to provide the basis for a US-led invasion in 2003. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rehabilitated by the West after agreeing to give up his banned weapons, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011.
The Syrian war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. It threatens to spread violence across the Middle East, with countries endorsing the sectarian divisions that brought civil war to Lebanon and Iraq.
The wavering from the West dealt an unquestionable blow to the Syrian opposition, which had thought it had finally secured military intervention after pleading for two and a half years for help from Western leaders that vocally opposed Assad.
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 on Tuesday 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.

 

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