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Monday, June 18, 2018

MOSCOW (AFP) – Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on Tuesday said Syria has “already agreed” to an initiative by Russia for Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons stocks to international control.

“Yesterday, we had a round of very fruitful negotiations with (Russian Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov and he came forward with an initiative on chemical weapons,” Muallem said in Moscow after meeting the speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament in comments quoted by Russian news agencies translated from Arabic.

“And already (yesterday) in the evening we agreed with the Russian initiative,” saying this would “knock the chair from under the legs of the American aggression”.

Earlier, Lavrov said Moscow was in talks with Damascus to develop a “concrete plan” for the Syrian regime to hand over its chemical weapons arsenal.”

“We (Russia) are currently working on preparing a workable, precise and concrete plan and for this there are literally right now, in these minutes, contacts with the Syrian side,” the minister said at a news conference with his Libyan counterpart.

“And we expect to present this plan soon and we will be ready to work on it with the UN secretary general, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with the participation of members of the UN Security Council,” Lavrov added.

Russia’s proposal to stave off threatened U.S. strikes Syria through a handover of chemical weapons received a cautious welcome Tuesday even from backers of military action, with President Barack Obama describing the idea as a “potential breakthrough”.

Only the opposition fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for control of Syria openly denounced the Russian idea, describing it as a political manoeuvre that will waste time and cause more deaths.

Lavrov had announced the plan on Monday during a hastily called news briefing after talks with Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem.

He said that the plan could avert threatened military strikes by the United States after a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on August 21 which the West believes was carried out by the regime.

Obama warned 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 U.S. 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.