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.
“Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that,” Kerry told reporters in London. “But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”
But Obama said he had discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week’s G20 summit in Saint Petersburg.
The rebels battling Assad, who hoped to see U.S. missiles rain down on the regime, denounced the idea as a plot by the Kremlin to protect Assad.
“The proposal of Lavrov is a political maneuver and is part of useless procrastination that will only result in more deaths and destruction for the Syrian people,” said an opposition statement.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed concern that the plan might be “a distraction tactic” but broadly welcomed it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Kremlin’s proposal as “interesting” but added that she hoped it would be put into place quickly and not simply be used to “buy time.”
France, the only Western ally to have offered to take part in a US-led strike, said Assad must commit “without delay” to the elimination of his chemical arsenal.
The foreign ministry of China, which has backed Russia’s stance throughout the crisis, predictably said that “we welcome and support the Russian side’s suggestion.’
Iran, an ally of both Syria and Russia, “favorably welcomes” the Russian plan, foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afgham said.
For his part, Assad warned earlier in an interview with U.S. television that the United States will “pay the price” if it attacks Syria.
While Obama portrayed Russia’s idea as a victory for Washington’s policy of threatening military action, it still leaves him in a political bind.
Having chosen to seek Congressional support for a limited U.S. military strike against Syria, he could be defeated on his home turf.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would delay a key procedural vote on authorizing force until after Obama makes a national address on the issue on Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” Obama said of the prospect of his winning the impending votes.
According to US intelligence, on August 21 a chemical attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus killed more than 1,400 people, including 400 children gassed in their beds.
US-based rights group Human Rights Watch said in a statement early Tuesday that all available evidence “strongly suggested” the Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack.
Human Rights Watch issued its findings in a 22-page report after analyzing witness accounts of the rocket attacks, the physical remnants of weapons used and the symptoms exhibited by the victims.
The crisis in Syria flared after Assad’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-regime protests that began in March 2011, and eventually degenerated into an all-out civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the UN.
AFP Photo/Karen Bleier