Syria has accepted a Russian proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for dismantling, the Syrian foreign minister said on Tuesday, amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at averting Western military action.
Speaking in Moscow, Walid al-Moallem said his government quickly agreed to the plan to “derail U.S. aggression” an allusion to possible U.S.-led strikes over a deadly August 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that Western powers blame on the Syrian regime. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied the claim.
Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, is now working with Damascus to prepare a detailed plan of action that will be presented soon, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan with U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Mr. Al-Moallem’s brief statement sounded more definitive than his remarks on Monday, when he said Damascus welcomed Russia’s initiative. He did not provide any details about how Syria might comply.
Western officials have expressed caution about possible stalling tactics or efforts to wriggle out of international pressure by Mr. al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died in more than two years of civil war.
The response came after France announced on Tuesday it would put forward a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to ultimately dismantle its chemical weapons program, seizing on the diplomatic opening from Russia a day earlier.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Mr. Assad could resolve the crisis by ceding control of his chemical arsenal to the international community. Mr. Lavrov responded by promising to push Syria to place the weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly, to avert U.S. strikes. China too expressed support for the plan.
President Barack Obama said on Monday that the Russian proposal could be “potentially a significant breakthrough”, but he remained sceptical that Syria would follow through.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the Russian proposal: “As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively.”
The chief of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, also expressed support for the proposal, telling reporters that it has been always in favor of a “political resolution”. The league has blamed the government for the attack, but says it doesn’t support military action without U.N. consent.
France and the United States have been the two Western powers that have most vocally called for military action against Assad’s regime over the chemical weapons attack, insisting that international accords against the use of chemical weapons needed to be enforced.