December 11, 2013
Syria agrees on chemical weapons deal, US remains cautious
Syria accepted a Russian proposal to give up chemical weapons but US President Barack Obama said it was too early to tell if the initiative would succeed and he vowed to keep military forces at the ready to strike if diplomacy fails.
In a televised address to Americans, Obama pledged to explore Russia's proposal for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control, while expressing skepticism about the initiative.
He said he had asked the US Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing military action while Washington and its allies try to pass a United Nations resolution requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up the weapons in a verifiable way.
In a sign of how hard that will be, Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier that the chemical 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.
Obama said there had been "encouraging signs" in recent days, in part because of the US threat of military action to punish Assad for what Washington says was the use of poison gas to kill 1,400 civilians in Damascus on August 21.
"It is too early to tell whether this offer will succeed," Obama said. "And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."
Moscow has previously vetoed three UN Security Council 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.
Obama said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for further talks, and he himself would continue discussions with Putin.
Amid the whirlwind of diplomatic activity focused on the response to the chemical weapons attack, the civil war resumed in earnest on Tuesday with Assad's jets again bombing rebel positions in the capital.
An initial UN Security Council resolution, drafted by France, would demand that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons program within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to UN inspectors or face possible punitive measures.
The French draft resolution adds that the Security Council would intend "in the event of non-compliance by the Syrian authorities with the provisions of this resolution ... to adopt further necessary measures under Chapter VII" of the UN Charter.
Russia has made clear it wanted to take the lead on any resolution. Lavrov told his French counterpart that Moscow would propose a UN draft declaration, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Obama said he would work with allies as well as Russia and China, both of which have veto powers on the Security Council, to craft a UN resolution. He gave no timetable for how long he would wait for such talks to play out.
"Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails," Obama said.
The president also reiterated his arguments for why it would be in the national security interests of the United States to punish Syria for using chemical weapons if diplomacy fails.
"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," Obama said. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them."