BEIRUT: The foreign ministers of Russia and the United States are set to discuss Thursday a U.N. resolution that would put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and end a diplomatic stalemate over a deadly suspected poison gas attack.
The plan for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, initiated by Russia, appeared to ease the crisis over looming Western strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad, only to open up new potential for impasse as Moscow objected to making the resolution militarily enforceable.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow “already handed over to the U.S. the plan for fulfilling the initiative for international control of Syrian chemical weapons,” according to comments carried by Interfax news agency Wednesday. He gave no details of the plan but said he would discuss it with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during their meeting in Geneva Thursday.
Envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member states met in New York Wednesday to discuss plans to place the weapons under international control.
A French official close to the president, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations remained sensitive, said Russia objected not only to making the resolution militarily enforceable, but also to blaming the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack on the Syrian government and demanding that those responsible be taken before an international criminal court.
Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called “a trap,” Paris and Washington are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify Syria’s disarmament. Russia, a close ally of Syrian leader Bashar Assad and the regime’s chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France’s proposal Tuesday.
The diplomatic maneuvering threatened growing momentum toward a plan that would allow President Barack Obama to back away from military action. Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the U.S., even as Obama seeks congressional backing for action – and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
In a nationally televised speech Tuesday night, Obama told Americans that diplomacy suddenly holds “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” in Syria without use of force, but he declared that the U.S. military would “be ready to respond” against Assad if other measures fail.
Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote he had been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria. The president pledged that any military action wouldn’t involve deploying ground combat troops or waging a prolonged air campaign.
However, U.S. lawmakers said Wednesday that the Senate could start voting on a resolution to authorize the use of military force as soon as next week if efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis fall short.
For many in the Syrian opposition who held out hopes that Western strikes against Assad would tip the civil war in the rebellion’s favor, Obama’s decision to seek a diplomatic resolution was a disappointment.
“We believe the regime is just buying more time, is just trying to fool the international community, is just trying to get out of this situation,” said Louay Safi, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose-knit alliance of rebel factions that is backed by the West.“We don’t believe that this delay for any kind of intervention will stop the regime from killing Syrian people or be for the Syrian people’s benefit. It will give Assad more time, and every minute, every day, every hour that passes will cost us more blood and Bashar will continue killing and nothing will change,” he said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Russian initiative, but said its backers must verify that Damascus actually follows through and disarms itself of all chemical weapons.
Obama’s decision also won the applause of Assad’s close ally Iran, which has provided military and financial support to the Syrian regime since the revolt began in March 2011.
“We hope that the new U.S. attitude toward Syria would be a serious policy and not a media campaign,” Iranian state TV quoted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons program to inspection, place it under international control and ultimately dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry “very serious consequences.” The resolution would condemn the Aug. 21 attack and bring those responsible to justice, he said.
On the ground, fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels flared again Wednesday in the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula.
Most of the village’s 3,300 residents have fled to safer parts of the country, although some have remained and are locked up in their houses, activists said.
Maaloula, about 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, had until recently been firmly in the regime’s grip despite being surrounded by rebel-held territory. Rebels reported their withdrawal from the town Tuesday. However, the regime said fighting continued, with troops beating back rebels and advancing into the Christian town Wednesday, state news agency SANA reported.