Russia on Monday called for putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, in a surprise move aimed at averting threatened US missile strikes designed to punish Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using them.
The proposal, which was quickly welcomed by Syria’s foreign minister, comes amid a flurry of negotiations and public diplomacy aimed at heading off looming US military action. In interviews with CBS and PBS, broadcast Monday, President Assad denied government forces used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack that prompted the White House to rally support for military action. President Obama, meanwhile, is scheduled to give a prime-time address to the US public on Tuesday about the Syrian crisis, as he tries to persuade Congress to back missile strikes.
The proposal for international control over the Syrian weapons was taken up by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after learning of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggestion, according to the Russia Foreign Ministry, that strikes might be averted if Assad were to hand over "every single bit" of his chemical weapons arsenal by the end of this week.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow Monday, Mr. Lavrov said Russia would join the effort to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control if it would forestall military strikes.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to place chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction and the fully joining of the treaty on the prohibition of chemical weapons," Lavrov said, in a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.
Earlier Monday, responding to a question at a news conference with his British counterpart in London, Mr. Kerry said there was one way that Assad could stop a potential US attack.
“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 a full and total accounting for that, ” he said, according to a State Department transcript. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who was in the Russian capital for talks with Russian officials, responded with a statement that appeared to suggest that Syria would accept the proposal by Moscow.
“I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.
Russian media sources suggested the outlines of such a deal might have been worked up during a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week's Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Moscow has been a stalwart supporter of Damascus since the Soviet era, supplying weaponry and economic aid and benefiting from use of a naval facility in the Port of Tartus. It has consistently opposed any outside intervention in Syria's spiraling civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people, and argued that there is no proof that Assad was behind last month's alleged poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb.
No details have been provided on how any such handover of Syria's massive arsenal of chemical weapons could be effected, and verified, amid the chaos of the multisided civil war, and especially under the tight time constraints stipulated by Kerry.
But some Russian experts say Obama may be looking for a face-saving way out of his threat to launch military strikes against Syria, and this could be it.
“If the main issue here is, indeed, Assad's chemical weapons, then gathering them up under international control offers a way out of this difficult situation for everyone," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
“This plan to eliminate the chemical weapons and thus remove the problem, agreed between Russia and the US, could be an acceptable solution – if it can be implemented in a serious and credible way," Mr. Konovalov says.