WORLD

Russia’s Syria disarmament plan gathers pace

Damascus accepts Moscow’s plan. Obama has said he would consider the Russian diplomatic push. Chemical attack was rebel provocation, former captives say.

Russia has said it is working on an “effective, concrete” plan for putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control while France says it plans to float a UN Security Council resolution aimed at forcing Damascus to make its weapons programme public and then dismantle it.
The diplomatic push over Syria’s chemicals weapons gathered momentum on Tuesday, a day after the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested the measure for averting US plans for a military strike against Syria. France on Tuesday said it would start the process for a new UN Security Council resolution, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which is militarily enforceable.
According to Russia Today, the Syrian government agrees to Russia’s proposal to hand its chemical arsenal over to international control in a bid to avert a possible strike by the US-led coalition, Interfax reported citing the Syrian Foreign Minister. “Yesterday [Monday] we held a round of very fruitful negotiations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and he put forward an initiative regarding chemical weapons. Already in the evening we accepted Russia’s initiative,” Walid Muallem said.  He stressed that the agreement is designed to “pull the rug from under the feet of American aggression.”
On Monday night, US President Barack Obama has said he would consider the Russian diplomatic offer. Obama’s comments came in interviews late on Monday as the US Senate decided to delay its vote on military action – capping a day of shifting positions from within the administration and on Capitol Hill, Al Jazeera reports. It began with Secretery of State John Kerry saying, in response to a reporter’s question, that there would be no need for military action if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad handed over his chemical weapons – an answer that was then presented by Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, as a workable plan.
The US administration at first stated that Kerry’s response was only rhetorical, but within hours the president said in interviews with six US networks that a diplomatic solution should be sought.
Obama said on CNN that the Russian plan was “a potentially positive development”, while on NBC he said it could be a “significant breakthrough”.
He told PBS: “I have instructed John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians and run this to ground and if we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria then I’m all for it.” However, he was adamant that the offer would not have surfaced if, he told NBC, “a credible threat of a military strike from the United States” had not been made.
Vote delayed
Obama’s comments were broadcast as the Senate majority leader Harry Reid delayed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on military action, citing “international discussions”, while Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin released statements calling for the Russian solution to be considered. Obama, who meets senators on Tuesday, conceded that he may lose his campaign in Congress for authorisation. “I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” he said.
Lavrov said Syria, as well as handing over the weapons and having them destroyed, should also become a full member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Iran’s foreign ministry on Tuesday said it supported the idea and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said he too welcomed it. Ban called for the creation of UN-supervised zones in Syria where chemical weapons could be destroyed. “I am considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed,” Ban said, adding that the step would overcome the Security Council’s “embarrassing paralysis”. Kerry’s original comments were earlier welcomed by Walid al-Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister. Muallem’s response, however, has not been confirmed by the Syrian government.
Different story
Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin and Italian journalist Domenico Quiric, both of whom were abducted and held hostage for several months in Syria, said they overheard in an exchange between their captors that rebels were behind the recent chemical attack, Russia Today reports. In a number of interviews to European news outlets, the former hostages said they overheard an English-language Skype conversation between their captors and other men which suggested it was rebel forces – not the government – that used chemical weapons on Syria’s civilian population in an August 21 attack near Damascus. “It is a moral duty to say this. The government of Bashar al-Assad did not use sarin gas or other types of gas in the outskirts of Damascus,” Piccinin said during an interview with Belgium’s RTL radio station.  Piccinin stressed that while being held captive, he and fellow prisoner Quirico were secluded from the outside world and had no idea that chemical weapons were deployed. But the conversation which both men overheard suggested that the use of the weapons was a strategic move by the opposition, aimed at getting the West to intervene.
“In this conversation, they said that the gas attack on two neighborhoods of Damascus was launched by the rebels as a provocation to lead the West to intervene militarily,” Quirico told Italy’s La Stampa. “We were unaware of everything that was going on during our detention in Syria, and therefore also with the gas attack in Damascus.”
While stating that the rebels most likely exaggerated the accident’s death toll, the Italian journalist stressed that he could not vouch whether “the conversation was based on real facts.” However, he said that one of the three people in the alleged conversation identified himself as a Free Syrian Army general, La Stampa reported.
Based on what both men have learned, Peccinin told RTL that it would be “insane and suicidal for the West to support these people.”  “It pains me to say it because I’ve been a fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in its rightful fight for democracy since 2012,” Piccinin added.

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