GENEVA (AFP) – Moscow and Washington begin crucial talks Thursday on Russia’s plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, after President Vladimir Putin made a personal plea to the American people to reject military action.
In talks reminiscent of Cold War-era summits, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in Geneva to pore over Moscow’s plans to neutralize Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Russia’s shock announcement this week of a plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons up-ended U.S. plans for military action in response to an alleged chemical attack last month by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
President Barack Obama backed away from a threat to launch airstrikes against the regime, but the United States and main backer France have warned that military action is not off the table.
Revealing details of the proposal for the first time Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant said Moscow had given Washington a four-step plan for the weapons handover.
Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, Kommersant said the plan would see Damascus join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.
Syria’s opposition has denounced the plan as a delaying tactic, warning it will only lead to more deaths in a conflict that has already killed more than 110,000 people since March 2011.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Selim Idriss, said in a video posted on YouTube that the rebels categorically rejected the Russian plan.
Idriss told world powers they should not “be satisfied only by removing the chemical weapon, which is the tool of a crime, but judge the author of the crime before the International Criminal Court.”
Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Putin took the unusual step of penning a commentary in the New York Times warning that unilateral U.S. military action could unleash chaos.
Appealing directly to U.S. voters and policy-makers over Obama’s head, Putin wrote: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.
“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance,” Putin said.
Drawing on a passage in Obama’s Tuesday night address that said the United States has an “exceptional” role to play, Putin said it was wrong for any power to presume a unique leadership role.
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” he wrote.
“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”