PARIS (AFP) – Russia said Wednesday it had given the U.S. a plan to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, raising hopes of a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The move came a day after threatened U.S.-led strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were put on ice in response to Russia’s offer to oversee Syria giving up its arsenal after Washington accused Damascus of using deadly sarin gas against its own people last month.
Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for talks on the disarmament process that are expected to run until Friday at least.
“We handed over to the Americans a plan to place chemical weapons in Syria under international control. We expect to discuss it in Geneva,” Russian news agencies quoted a source in the Russian delegation to the talks as saying.
Russian officials provided no details of the plan which has effectively pushed military action off the table for the time being, although both the U.S. and France stressed it remains an option if Syria is seen to be stalling.
With the risk of an attack having receded considerably for now, Assad — who turned 48 on Wednesday — was free to pursue his battle with a rebel coalition that has been left dismayed by the West’s retreat from intervention.
President Barack Obama has expressed optimism that the Russian initiative can lead to the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons without the use of force.
The switch to diplomacy was welcomed on Wednesday by China, which also praised Syria’s offer to sign an international treaty banning chemical weapons.
“We hope all relevant sides can grasp this opportunity to solve the Syria problem through diplomatic and political means,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
France insisted military action remained an option. “France will remain, in permanent contact with its partners, mobilized to punish the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and to deter them from using them again,” President Francois Hollande said after talks with his military chiefs.
Amongst Western leaders, Hollande has been the leading advocate of intervention in Syria, although, like Obama, he has been unable to convince a majority of his electorate of the case for action.
Obama said U.S. cruise missile destroyers would remain in place within striking distance of Syria, warning that “the U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
Israel’s President Shimon Peres said he believed Obama would not back away from airstrikes if Syria is shown to be acting in bad faith.
“If there will be a crack in Syria’s integrity I have no doubt that the U.S. will act militarily,” Peres said.
Syria was threatened with strikes in response to the use of sarin gas in an August 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. The U.S. says the attack killed more than 1,400 people and was carried out by Assad’s forces, a claim the regime denies.
Syria announced on Tuesday that it would join an international convention banning chemical weapons and hand over control of current stocks — effectively admitting for the first time that it has them.
Signatories are supposed to destroy any chemical weapons under their control and to allow UN inspectors access to their sites. Russia has offered to oversee this process and has said talks with the Syrians on how to go about it are already under way.
The path to a peaceful resolution of the crisis remains littered with obstacles however with the U.S., France and Britain still at odds with the Russians over the next steps.
France and Britain are pushing for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action in the event of Syria failing to act on its disarmament promises. Russia has made it clear it will veto any ultimatum of that kind and is likely to be able to count on backing from China, a fellow permanent member of the Security Council.
Syrian opponents of the Assad regime have warned that the chemical weapons negotiations will do nothing to end a conflict in which over 110,000 people have died in more than two years of fighting.
UN human rights investigators on Wednesday reported that the conflict had been characterized by widespread war crimes committed by both sides. The team was unable to reach any conclusions on the use of chemical weapons, which is being investigated by a different group of experts.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the failure to stem the bloodshed would leave a lasting stain on the reputation of the world body.
“Our collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria of the past two-and-a-half years will remain a heavy burden on the standing of the United Nations and its member states,” Ban told a UN meeting on preventing genocide.
The image of Assad’s opponents in Syria meanwhile suffered a blow with reports emerging of an incident in which one Christian resident of Maalula had been forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint after the ancient town was overrun by Islamist fighters last week.
The Islamist wing of the opposition was also blamed for the apparently sectarian killing of 12 civilians from the minority Alawite community — to which Assad belongs — during attacks on villages near Homs on Tuesday.