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Middle East

Is Syria's plan just a 'ruse'? David Cameron seeks urgent UN resolution to test proposal

PM fears plan to move Syria’s chemical weapons to internationally controlled sites inside the country could be 'delaying tactics' to buy time for Assad regime

Britain, America and France were calling on Russia tonight to back a binding UN resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical weapons within as little as 45 days.

Western diplomats in New York were still drawing up a resolution that would set a deadline for Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, to hand over control of his weapons stockpiles to international authorities.

And in what could become a test of the sincerity of Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, the resolution could potentially include authorisation for eventual force against Syria under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter should it not comply.

This is likely to be strongly opposed by Russia. Tonight President Putin insisted that the peace plan would only work “if the US and those who support it renounce the use of force”.  Ominously perhaps, Russia at the last minute withdrew a request for a Security Council meeting that had been set for tonight.

In another day of dizzying diplomatic activity, David Cameron and President Barack Obama announced that they would table a resolution at the UN Security Council encapsulating the proposal uttered first, almost as if by mistake, by Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Monday and then taken up in more urgent and concrete terms by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow.

Under the Russian plan Syria’s chemical weapons would be moved to internationally controlled sites inside the country where they could be destroyed. In an attempt to bolster its credibility, Syria said it would for the first time sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Mr Kerry meanwhile plans to hold direct talks with Mr Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow.

In London, following a telephone call with Mr Obama, Mr Cameron told MPs he was sceptical about Russia’s intentions but suggested the proposals were worth exploring. “If we can achieve the removal and the destruction of the biggest chemical weapons arsenal in the world, that would be a significant step forward,” he said. “So it is definitely worth exploring but we must be sceptical, we must be careful, we must enter this with a very hard head and some pretty cool calculations, because we do not want this to be some delaying tactic, some ruse to just buy time for a regime that must act on chemical weapons.”

However government sources dismissed suggestions that the Prime Minister might return to Parliament to seek approval for the UK to join in military action should the Assad regime not comply.

In a tricky dual-track approach, President Obama was set in an address from the Oval Office tonight to reaffirm his case for military strikes against Syria while at the same time allowing space for a diplomatic solution. He earlier requested that votes in Congress on the issue be postponed pending diplomatic developments.

The plan for a non-violent solution was quickly embraced on Capitol Hill where Senate and House leaders were hastily revising a resolution to put to Congress authorising strikes to take the Russian plan into account.  It would set a deadline, possibly of 45 days, for the UN successfully to hold Syria to account and to secure all its chemical weapons. If the effort falls short then Mr Obama would be authorised to launch strikes.

But many things could still trip the effort, including Russian opposition to any Chapter 7 reference as well as any language explicitly condemning the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Crucially, however, China tonight indicated its support at least for the notion of Syria giving up the weapons.

And then there is the question of Syrian compliance. The Syrian Prime Minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, and Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, both said that Syria was ready to accept the plan and hand over all its chemical weapons. There was no word, however, from President Assad.

Mr Lavrov promised to move fast. “We are hoping to present this plan in the near future,” he said. “We will be ready to work through this plan and improve it with the participation of the UN Secretary General, chemical weapons control organisations and the members of the Security Council.”

Kerry stumbles across escape route from war

At times of crisis diplomats know to weigh and calibrate every word they utter, particularly if reporters are about.

Yet there was John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, telling a CBS correspondent out of the blue that if Syria surrendered “every single bit” of its chemical weapons arsenal this crisis would be over.

The remark got Washington scurrying. Do NOT take this seriously, the State Department advised in a media statement. 

Discipline, forward thinking, consideration of every possible consequence – all seem to have been lacking from the start.

From which buried synapse did Mr Kerry’s notion of Syria relinquishing its weapons come from exactly? It turns out the thought was not entirely random.

Barack Obama late on Monday revealed that pressuring Syria to hand over its weapons came up during a private meeting last Friday with Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg. Mr Kerry mis-spoke about a possible solution, Russia within hours ran with it, and maybe, just maybe, the escape hatch from war has been opened.

David Usborne