Russia has provided the US with a detailed plan which, if acceptable, could pave the way for the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons into international control.
Sources close to the Russian foreign ministry told the news agency Interfax that the documentation is now with the US, in a move anticipated by Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday.
Mr Kerry is set to meet his Russian counterpart in Geneva to discuss the proposals tomorrow, but there is some way to go before an international agreement is reached over what Prime Minister David Cameron has warned could be a “ruse” to distract the world from military action.
An earlier draft UN resolution, written up by France in its own plans for making the Syrian government hand over its chemical weapons, would give the Assad regime just 15 days to provide a full account of its entire stockpile.
And as US President Barack Obama told the American public last night that he had asked the US Congress to pause before voting on whether to back military strikes against Syria, his country is engaged with France and the UK – and now Russia – in trying to come up with a strong but realistic scheme which would deny Bashar al-Assad the capability for future chemical atrocities.
Last night French diplomats were struggling to complete a draft for consideration by the Security Council that would give Syria a concrete 15 day deadline.
That effort almost immediately hit rapids, however, when Russia objected to the French offering that included the possibility of the use of force to ensure Syrian compliance as well as explicit condemnation of the regime.
Ahead of his commitments today to commemoration services marking the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mr Obama said last night that diplomacy would have its chance in seeking a path through the UN towards forcing the regime in Damascus to give up its chemical weapons.
In his long-anticipated address to the nation from inside the White House, Mr Obama asserted that it had been the credible threat of US action that had in part precipitated the dramatic diplomatic activity of the last days springing from a Russian initiative requiring that the Syrian government hand over the chemical arsenal for dismantlement.
Speaking in primetime for 15 minutes, Mr Obama acknowledged strikes would be unpopular at home but said the horror of chemical weapons meant America could not look away. “For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security,” he argued. “This has meant doing more than forging international agreements - it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”
Mr Obama confirmed he was dispatching Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Geneva for direct talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday. The outcome of that meeting will give western capitals a better idea of how serious an effort for peace Moscow is making or whether it is engaged in stalling tactic on Syria’s behalf.
“I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom, and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control,” Mr Obama explained, adding that he would also give the UN inspectors time to report on their findings in Syria.
His speech was divided into two parts, the first laying out why he thinks it is incumbent on America to punish Syria for using chemical weapons and the second explaining why he is pushing the pause button to give the latest diplomatic effort a chance. “It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Mr Obama warned. “And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies.”
As for the argument for responding to Syria’s alleged crimes, Mr Obama offered some history going back to the World War I and the decades spent trying to outlaw chemical weapons. He argued also that turning a blind eye would give license to Bashar al-Assad and others to resort to gas in the future. “If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” Mr Obama said. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.”
He also invited Americans to turn to their laptops and smartphones and view the videos of gassed civilians in Syria. “The images from this massacre are sickening: men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas; others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath; a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”
Further action at the UN in New York is now likely to await the Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Geneva. The French draft of a UN resolution tabled yesterday that drew instant Russian opposition includes a warning that the UN would be ready “in the event of non-compliance by the Syrian authorities with the provisions of this resolution ... to adopt further necessary measures under Chapter VII” of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force.