GENEVA (AFP) – President Bashar al-Assad confirmed for the first time Thursday that Syria plans to give up its chemical weapons and demanded that the U.S. drop threats of military action against his regime in return.
“When we see that the United States truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade, as well as stops arms supplies to terrorists then we can believe that we can follow through with the necessary processes,” Assad said in an interview on Russian television.
Washington should dispense with the “politics of threats,” he warned.
Assad also signalled that he was ready to start the disarmament process by filing documents to the United Nations as the first step towards joining an international convention outlawing the possession and use of chemical weapons.
“Syria will be sending an appeal to the U.N. and the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in a few days, which will have technical documents necessary to sign the agreement,” he said.
Despite Assad’s demand, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was hopeful U.S.-Russia talks due to start in Geneva could produce a workable weapons transfer plan that will avert the need for military action.
Assad had earlier rejected suggestions the threat of airstrikes had forced his hand.
“Syria is handing over chemical weapons under international control because of Russia,” he said. “U.S. threats have not affected the decision.”
Backed by a large team of experts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
“I am hopeful that the discussions that Secretary Kerry has with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well as some of the other players in this can yield a concrete result and I know that he is going to be working very hard over the next several days over the possibilities there,” Obama said.
Washington wants to see if Assad is serious about putting his chemical weapons stockpile under international control, amid allegations the regime used sarin gas in an attack near Damascus last month.
Ahead of the talks, a senior U.S. official saidWashington was urging Syria to “declare all of their stockpile quickly.”
The official said Washington would be asking for specific action from Damascus to test the regime’s sincerity and discussing the “different modalities” of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons and production facilities.
“It’s doable, but difficult,” the official said.
Lavrov voiced optimism ahead of the talks, saying during a visit to Kazakhstan: “I am sure that there is a chance for peace in Syria… We cannot let it slip away.”
The United States and its main backer of military strikes on Syria — France — have warned they will not allow the chemical weapons plan to become a delaying tactic in Syria’s brutal war, saying the threat of military force remains on the table.
“All of this should, if everyone is aware of their responsibilities, allow for the end of chemical weapons in Syria and for us to find a political solution, but France is keeping up pressure,” President Francois Hollande told journalists.
Revealing details of the Russian proposal for the first time Thursday, 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 fordestruction of the arsenal.
Syria’s opposition has denounced the plan, 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 initiative.
And the Syrian National Coalition opposition group said the plan is a “political manoeuvre aimed at buying time” for Assad and would be a “green light” to other regimes to use chemical weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile made an unusual personal appeal to the American people to reject military action, in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism,” Putin wrote. “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Putin welcomed U.S. willingness to consider the Moscow initiative, but warned any strikes without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, would destroy the credibility of the world body.
Russia is a traditional ally of Assad, and Moscow, backed by China, has blocked any attempt to sanction his regime through the United Nations.
The talks in Geneva were expected to last two to three days and also focus on revitalising efforts to organise a peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.
Ahead of the meeting with Lavrov, Kerry met U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss U.N.-backed efforts to bring the Assad regime to the table with the rebels.
Washington alleges that some 1,400 people died in the chemical attack on August 21 and was rallying support for a military response when the Russian proposal emerged.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said Thursday that destroying Syria’s chemical weapons would be “immensely difficult” and may do little to end the conflict there.
“There has never been a situation where the international community has attempted to secure, seize and destroy weapons of mass destruction during an ongoing conflict,” IISS proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick told a news conference.
Photo Credit: AFP/Larry Downing