Syria accepts Russia's chemical weapons plan; talks to start at U.N.

Matthew Schofield,Anita Kumar

The threat of imminent U.S. military action appeared to fade Tuesday as Syria agreed to a Russian proposal to surrender its chemical weapons to international control and President Barack Obama said he would “explore seriously” the proposal.

Obama spoke to his French and British counterparts and “they agreed to work closely together, and in consultation with Russia and China” on a plan that would ensure the “verifiable and enforceable destruction" of Syria’s chemical weapons, according to a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The negotiations were to begin Tuesday at the United Nations and were expected to result in a Security Council resolution, according to the official.

France said it would propose a resolution that would include a requirement that the persons responsible for an Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb be referred to the International Criminal Court for trial. The Australian Ambassador to the U.N. said talks were expected to begin at 4 p.m.

Obama was scheduled to address the American people at 9 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday night amid speculation that he would continue to advocate for congressional authorization for a retaliatory strike.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, credited the president’s threat to attack Syria for that country’s quick agreement to the Russian proposal that it turn over its chemical weapons stores and agree to their destruction.

"It is important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not fear to act," Reid said. "Our credible threat of force has made these diplomatic discussions with Syria possible. The United States should not withdraw that threat."

Reid echoed the White House condition that the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons must be verifiable.

"The Assad regime must quickly prove that their offer is real and not merely a ploy to delay military action indefinitely," Reid said. "Any agreement must also assure Syria’s chemical weapons can be viably secured, even in the midst of ongoing fighting. And any agreement must ensure that Syria is unable to transfer its dangerous chemical weapons to the hands of terrorist groups."

Whether Obama’s request for Congress to approve a strike on Syria will ever come to a vote was unclear, however. On Monday, Reid postponed a Senate vote that had been scheduled for Wednesday amid signs that congressional opposition to the proposal was overwhelming.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that he would vote against authorizing military action. “A vital national security risk is clearly not at play, there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad made no comment on the Russian plan, which came together suddenly on Monday after what appeared to have been an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of Sate John Kerry during a London news conference.

But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made it clear that the threat of what he called “American aggression” had motivated his country to move quickly on the proposal.

According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Muallem praised “the wisdom of Russian leadership” for the offer, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made after Kerry told reporters that Syria could avoid a military strike by handing over its chemical weapons to an international body for destruction.

Muallem said that after “fruitful talks” on Monday, Syria had decided to accept the offer Monday night.

"Syria welcomes Russia’s initiative, which is based on Russian concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country," the news agency quoted him as saying. He said Syrian acceptance was based both on Russian advice and “to avert American aggression against our nation.”

The government’s Syrian Arab News Agency did not specifically say the plan had been accepted in its coverage of the subject. But it posted a lengthy story on its website from Moscow in which it said that "Russia is working with Syria to draw up a specific implementable plan.”

"The work to carry out the plan will be in cooperation with the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and members of the U.N. Security Council," the SANA report said, citing comments Lavrov made Tuesday at a news conference in Moscow.

After weeks of discord with the Obama administration over the Aug. 21 reputed chemical weapons attack, Lavrov was quick to praise the U.S. role in both brokering and backing the deal. Before the Syrians agreed to the proposal, Lavrov made it clear it was an international deal, made with U.S. input. He also said the end product should be submitted to the United Nations Security Council.

“This issue requires the return of the international investigators to their work on the Syrian ground to investigate the chemical weapons use," Lavrov said. “The truth must be revealed and the criminals responsible for using these weapons must be brought to justice.”

Russia has accused the Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons in an attack on Khan al Asal, outside Aleppo, in March. The Russians submitted a 100-page report on the incident to the U.N. in July.

Chinese reaction to the developments was also favorable, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, telling reporters in Beijing that the proposal “can help east the current tension in Syria, solve the Syrian issue politically and safeguard peace and stability of Syria and the whole region.”

France, the only country that has said it would join the United States in a military strike on Syria, said it would support the Russian proposal. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attached three conditions to that support: that Assad agree to “place his entire chemical weapons arsenal under international control and allow it to be destroyed," that "this operation must be carried out on the basis of a binding Security Council resolution within a short time frame," and that "those responsible for the chemical massacre on Aug. 21 ... be referred to the International Criminal Court.”

His statement noted that the French goals were “to punish and to deter" the use of chemical weapons.

"That’s why we’re now demanding specific, prompt and verifiable commitments on the part of the Syrian regime,” he said.

There were skeptics. Avigdor Lieberman, who chairs the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Syria could use the proposal to "buy time," adding that Syrian President Bashar Assad "is winning time and lots of it."

Lieberman said Syria is likely stalling, as Iran allegedly did during early nuclear negotiations when faced with an offer to transfer enriched uranium stockpiles abroad.

Lieberman, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel doesn’t have details of the Russian offer and that the logistics of a weapons transfer are unclear.

President Shimon Peres on Monday also warned that negotiations over a weapons transfer would be "tough" and that Syria is "not trustworthy."

There was no detail on how the destruction of Syria’s weapons stores would be carried out. In a statement, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that oversees compliance with the ban on chemical weapons, said that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “is considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed, and has again urged that Syria should join the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

The statement noted that “the convention was based on zero tolerance for chemical weapons.”

But whether that would require U.N. inspectors to visit each of the estimated 49 locations where Syria is believed to have stored the weapons or whether they might be moved to a central location away from the fighting, such as the Russian military base, was unknown.

Destruction of the weapons will be a daunting task. A French intelligence summary made public last week said that Syria has more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin and VX, a neurotoxin considered the most potent chemical weapons in the world.

The United States is still storing tons of sarin and VX at its Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County, Ky. Both are scheduled to be at a massive plant that is 72 percent complete. The plant is supposed to be finished in 2015, but it will take until 2020 for it to become operational.

Then, according to the current timeline, it will take from 2020 to 2023 to destroy the weapons, said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a citizens group that monitors the remaining weapons in Kentucky and Pueblo, Colo.

Contributing to this report were David Lightman in Washington, Greg Korcher, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, in Lexingon, Ky., and McClatchy special correspondents Mel Frykberg in Jerusalem and Mitchell Prothero in Beirut.

By Matthew Schofield and Anita Kumar
McClatchy Foreign Staff