Syria backs chemical weapons plan, bombs rebels

Russian diplomatic initiative marks a sudden reversal after West seemed destined to intervene
Vladimir Putin, Russias president. (Bloomberg)
By Reuters
Tue 10 Sep 2013 04:42 PM

Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons and
win a reprieve from US strikes, while its warplanes bombed rebel positions in
Damascus for the first time since the West threatened military action.

The Russian diplomatic initiative, which apparently emerged from off-the-cuff
remarks by the US secretary of state, marks a sudden reversal after weeks in
which the West appeared finally headed towards intervention in a two-and-a-half
year old war.

France said it would put forward a UN Security Council draft resolution for
Syria to give up its stockpiles of chemical arms, threatening "extremely
serious" consequences if Syria violates its conditions.

Syria's rebels reacted with deep dismay to the proposal, which would halt
Western military action to punish President Bashar al-Assad's forces for a
poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb last
month.

US President Barack Obama, for whom the proposal provides a way out of
ordering unpopular strikes days before contentious Congressional votes, said it
could be a "breakthrough".

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid
al-Moualem, visiting Moscow, as saying Damascus had agreed to the Russian
initiative because it would "remove the grounds for American aggression".

While the diplomatic wrangling was under way in far-flung capitals, Assad's
warplanes bombed rebellious districts of Damascus on Tuesday for the first time
since the Aug. 21 poison gas attacks. Rebels said the air strikes were a
demonstration that the government now believed the West had lost its nerve.

"By sending the planes back, the regime is sending the message that it no
longer feels international pressure," activist Wasim al-Ahmad said from
Mouadamiya, one of the districts of the capital hit by the chemical attack.

The war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from
their homes, and threatens to spread violence across the Middle East.

The Russian proposal "is a cheap trick to buy time for the regime to kill
more and more people," said Sami, a member of the local opposition coordinating
committee in the Damascus suburb of Erbin, also hit by last month's chemical
attack.

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 UN 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.

The Russian proposal makes it easier for members of the US Congress to vote
to authorise action as part of a diplomatic initiative, without it leading
directly to missile strikes.

Republican Senator John McCain, a leading hawk, said lawmakers were working
on new wording of a Congressional resolution to ensure "strict timelines and
guidelines that would have to be met" for Assad to give up chemical arms.

Russia's proposal apparently began life as an off-the-cuff remark by US
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, although both Moscow and Washington
later said President Vladimir Putin had discussed the idea in principle with
Obama in the past. Putin's spokesman said it came up at a summit last week.

With veto-wielding China also backing it, it would be the rare Syria
initiative to unite global powers whose divisions have so far blocked Security
Council action. Assad's main regional backer Iran has also signalled support, as
has UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Washington and Paris have threatened to carry out strikes to punish Assad for
the Aug. 21 poison gas attack on Damascus suburbs, which they say Syrian
government forces carried out.

But after 12 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has had a hard time
winning over the public or members of Congress. Britain quit the coalition
threatening force after Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in
parliament.

Moscow unveiled its proposal on Monday after Kerry, speaking in London, said
the only way to halt strikes would be for Assad to give up his chemical arsenal.
The State Department said his remarks were rhetorical and not meant as a serious
proposal.

But hours later Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for Assad's
government to do just that.

Responding to the Russian initiative, Obama told CNN: "It's possible that we
can get a breakthrough," although he said there was a risk that it was a further
stalling tactic by Assad.

"We're going to run this to ground," he said. "John Kerry and the rest of my
national security team will engage with the Russians and the international
community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and
serious."

Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist and senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations, said the initiative spoils Obama's strategy, but Washington
was likely to be relieved.

"It basically throws a bit of a wrench into the administration's plans, but
it may be a welcome wrench."

The wavering from the West was a blow for the Syrian opposition, which had
thought it had finally secured military intervention after pleading for two and
a half years for help from Western leaders that vocally opposed Assad.

The Russian proposal "fails to hold the Assad regime responsible for the
killing of innocents," the Syrian National Coalition said, calling it "a
political manoeuvre which will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause
more death and destruction to the people of Syria, and further threats to the
countries and people of the region."

Assad's forces - which had been withdrawing from fixed positions and bracing
for expected Western strikes - appear to have responded to the hesitation by
redoubling an offensive to clear fighters from Damascus suburbs.

Troops and pro-Assad militiamen tried to seize the northern district of
Barzeh and the eastern suburb of Deir Salman near Damascus airport,
working-class Sunni Muslim areas where opposition activists and residents
reported street fighting.

Fighter jets bombed Barzeh three times and pro-Assad militia backed by army
tank fire made a push into the area. Air raids were also reported on the Western
outskirts near Mouadamiya.

Syria is not a party to international treaties which ban the stockpiling of
chemical weapons, but it signed the Geneva conventions that forbid using them in
warfare. Syria has tried to avoid confirming whether it possesses poison gas,
while denying it has used it.

Western countries believe Syria has a vast undeclared arsenal of chemical
arms. Sending inspectors to destroy it would be difficult even in peacetime and
extraordinarily complicated in the midst of a war.

The two main precedents are ominous: UN inspectors dismantled the chemical
arsenal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s but left enough doubt that
suspicion he still had such weapons was the basis for a US-led invasion in
2003.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rehabilitated by the West after agreeing to
give up his banned weapons, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011.

Assad's government says the chemical attack was the work of rebels trying to
win Western military support, a scenario that Washington and its allies say is
not credible.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, said evidence strongly
suggested Syrian government forces were behind the attack. It said in a report
that the type of rockets and launchers used in the attacks suggested weapon
systems in the possession only of government forces.

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