Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes but serious differences emerged between Russia and the United States that could obstruct a U.N. resolution to seal a deal.
In a televised address to Americans on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama will pledge to explore Russia’s proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control, while expressing skepticism about the initiative, an administration official said.
Even as the White House said it was determined to push ahead with a congressional resolution authorizing force, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the weapons plan would only succeed if Washington and its allies rule out military action.
In what amounted to the most explicit, high-level admission by Syria that it has chemical weapons, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in a statement shown on Russian state television that Damascus was committed to the Russian initiative.
“We want to join the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons. We are ready to observe our obligations in accordance with that convention, including providing all information about these weapons,” Moualem said.
“We are ready to declare the location of the chemical weapons, stop production of the chemical weapons, and show these (production) facilities to representatives of Russia and other United Nations member states,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington believes the proposal must be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council “in order to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have.”
Moscow has previously vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian government over the conflict.
The latest proposal “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force,” Putin said in televised remarks.
In his TV address, which was scheduled before the Russian proposal emerged, Obama will press his argument that it is in America’s national security interests for Syria to face consequences for using chemical weapons, the administration official said.
Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action was critical to forcing Assad to bend on his chemical weapons.
“For this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action – the credible, real threat of U.S. military action – must continue,” Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
U.S. officials said Kerry would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for further talks.
Amid the whirlwind of diplomatic activity focused on the response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Damascus neighborhood on Aug. 21, the civil war resumed in earnest, President Bashar al-Assad’s jets again bombing rebel positions in the capital.
The United States and its allies remain skeptical about the Russian proposal and Obama sought to keep the pressure on Syria by maintaining his drive for congressional backing for a possible military strike while exploring a diplomatic alternative.
At the United Nations, Britain, France and the United States discussed elements of a draft Security Council resolution that a diplomat from one of the three countries said would include a timeline for Syria to declare the full extent of its poison gas arsenal and to cede control of it to the United Nations.
France said the resolution should be legally binding and state clearly that Syria would face “serious consequences” if it failed to comply with the resolution’s demands – diplomatic code for military force. Such language will be resisted by Russia.
The U.N. Security Council initially called a closed door meeting asked for by Russia to discuss its proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, but the meeting was later cancelled at Russia’s request.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative.
“It was extremely well played by the Russians, but we didn’t want someone else to go to the U.N. with a resolution that was weak. This is on our terms and the principles are established. It puts Russia in a situation where they can’t take a step back after putting a step forward,” said a French diplomatic source.
Russia, however, made clear it wanted to take the lead.
Lavrov told his French counterpart that Moscow would propose a U.N. draft declaration supporting its initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.