UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Key international players were moving on two diplomatic fronts Wednesday to try to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, and a fresh effort appeared to be underway to get the government and opposition to peace talks.
U.N. diplomats said the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, who have been deeply divided over Syria, would meet later Wednesday to discuss what to include in a new resolution requiring that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile be secured and dismantled.
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were heading to Geneva with teams of experts for broader-ranging talks Thursday about the nuts and bolts of putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and destroying them, diplomats said.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was also heading to Geneva to be available to meet Kerry and Lavrov, whose efforts to start peace talks to end the 2 1/2-year Syrian conflict have been stymied by a government offensive and a deadly suspected poison gas attack on Aug. 21.
The diplomatic flurry follows the threat of U.S. strikes against President Bashar Assad’s regime and a surprise offer from Kerry that Syria could avert U.S. military action by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control within a week. Russia, Syria’s most important ally, and Assad’s government quickly agreed on the broad proposal, but details still need to be worked out.
While serious differences have already emerged — especially on whether a U.N. resolution should be militarily enforceable as the U.S. and its Western allies are demanding — the diplomatic moves represent the first major effort in more than a year to try to get supporters of the Syrian government and opposition on the same page.
Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the conflict, which has left the U.N.’s most powerful body paralyzed as the war escalates and the death toll surpasses 100,000. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week called the council’s paralysis embarrassing.
“What the secretary-general has been pressing for is the Security Council to come to a united decision,” U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Wednesday. “It’s crucially important at this late stage of the war that they come together and take some action that can prevent both the problems regarding the use of chemical weapons and the wider problem of solving this conflict.”
The White House said Wednesday it is not putting a timeline on a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria, though Press Secretary Jay Carney said putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, “obviously will take some time.”
France has proposed a draft resolution that demands Syria’s chemical weapons be put under international control and dismantled. It also condemns the Aug. 21 chemical attack the Obama administration says killed 1,400 people and calls for the perpetrators to be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Submitted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which makes it enforceable militarily, it warns of “very serious consequences” if Syria does not comply.
Lavrov immediately rejected any resolution under Chapter 7 and proposed a weaker presidential statement instead, a move rejected by the U.S., Britain and France.
A French official close to President Francois Hollande said Russia objected not only to making the resolution militarily enforceable, but also to blaming the alleged chemical attack on the Syrian government and demanding that those responsible be taken before an international criminal court.
Lavrov said Moscow had already handed over to the U.S. its plan for putting Syria’s arsenal under international control, according to comments carried by the Inter-fax news agency. He gave no details, but said he would discuss the proposal with Kerry on Thursday.
Carney said Russia has taken more action on the matter in the past two days than during the previous two years, adding that Russia is “putting its prestige on the line” to get Syria to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile.
He said the U.N. process to draft a resolution had just begun and diplomats said elements other than the French proposal were also being discussed.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Kerry “will not be negotiating or discussing a U.N. Security Council resolution … That is not our goal here. Those efforts and that work will be done in New York.”
She said Kerry is scheduled to meet Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, and Lavrov was expected to do so as well, U.N. officials said.
In Damascus, a senior government official said the Russian proposal was still a “broad headline” that needs to be developed. He added that Syria was ready to sign the chemical weapons convention but not if the move was imposed by foreign powers.
Cabinet Minister Ali Haidar told The Associated Press that Syria’s chemical weapons had been a counterweight against longtime foe Israel, but now could be relinquished thanks to “a new kind of strategic balance.” He declined to elaborate.
Asked about the difficulties of implementing the transfer and relinquishment of Syria’s chemical weapons amid a raging civil war, he replied: “There was no talk about moving and transferring control. There was talk about putting these weapons under international supervision.”
The diplomatic maneuvering threatened growing momentum toward a plan that would allow President Barack Obama to back away from military action. U.S. Congressional support for a strike is uncertain, and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
In a nationally televised speech Tuesday night, Obama told Americans that diplomacy suddenly holds “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” in Syria without use of force, but he declared that the U.S. military will “be ready to respond” against Assad if other measures fail.