Syria appears to agree to Russian plan on chemical weapons

Matthew Schofield

Syria on Monday seemed to agree to a Russian request that it put its chemical weapons stores under international control, intended for destruction, in an effort to head off a U.S. threat of a military strike.

The Russian request followed what appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to offer a way to avoid military confrontation in Syria.

Kerry’s statement was in answer to a question at a London press conference on how President Bashar Assad’s regime could avoid a military response to what the United States insists was an Aug. 21 chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.

"Sure," Kerry answered. "He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done.”

After hearing the statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly used those sentiments to craft a request.

“We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only to agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Lavrov said. The OPCW is the international body that monitors compliance with chemical weapons bans.

Shortly after, Russia Today, a government website, quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as welcoming the suggestion.

"The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian’s government care about the lives of our people and the security of our country,” the website quoted Muallem as saying.

The United States has blamed Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical attack. On Monday, Kerry speaking at a London press conference, said: “Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher al-Assad, and a general are the three people that have the control over the movement and use of chemical weapons. But under any circumstances, the Assad regime is the Assad regime, and the regime issues orders, and we have regime members giving these instructions and engaging in these preparations with results going directly to President Assad.”

A State Department statement before the Syrian response indicated that Kerry did not believe Assad would respond to the suggestion he surrender control over his chemical weapons.

“His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment,” the statement said.

The United States has blamed the Assad government for the 2 a.m. attack on Ghouta, a Damascus surburb. The evidence against Assad was described over the weekend as "common sense" by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on CNN's "State of the Union."

“The material was used in the eastern suburbs of Damascus that have been controlled by the opposition for some time,” he said. “It was delivered by rockets, rockets that we know the Assad regime has and we have no indication that the opposition has.”

By Matthew Schofield
McClatchy Foreign Staff