Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Monday said his country welcomed a proposal by Moscow to submit Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles to international control.
The surprise announcement came following a meeting in Moscow between Moallem and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and just hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry said such a move — which Kerry made plain he considered highly improbable — could avert a limited US strike on the country in retaliation for a lethal August 21 chemical weapons attack.
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” Moallem said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, a key US ally, reacted favorably to Syria’s declaration, saying the notion of putting the Assad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international supervision was “a big step forward.” He warned, however, that “we have to be careful, though, to make sure this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something else rather than the problem on the table.”
Earlier Monday, Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons by his forces only by surrendering control of “every single bit” of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
Kerry added, dismissively, that he thought Assad “isn’t about to do it.”
However, Lavrov, who had just wrapped up a round of talks in Moscow with Moallem, said that Moscow would try to convince the Syrians to do so.
“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” he said.
Israel’s Channel 2 news on Monday night quoted an unnamed Israeli official assessing that Moscow had created a situation whereby the US could not launch its promised “punitive” and “limited” strike against the Assad regime.
President Shimon Peres said “the Syrians are not trustworthy,” and that their acceptance of the Russian proposal meant very little.
It was not initially clear what kind of weapons control mechanism Moscow had in mind, or Syria was agreeing to. For instance, Lavrov did not specify whether Assad’s chemical weapons would be supervised by international personnel inside Syria, or transferred out of the country to, say, Russia or Turkey.
Lavrov’s statement followed media reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria with President Barack Obama during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last week, was seeking to negotiate a deal that would have Assad hand over control of chemical weapons.
The Russian move came as Obama, who has accused Assad of killing over 1,400 of his own people in the chemical attack last month, is pressing for a limited strike against the Syrian government.
Assad has denied responsibility for the attack, insisting that it was launched by Syrian rebels to drag the US into the war.
Lavrov and Moallem said after their talks that UN chemical weapons experts should complete their probe and present their findings to the United Nations Security Council.
Moallem said his government was ready to host the UN team, and insisted that Syria is ready to use all channels to convince the Americans that it wasn’t behind the attack.
He added that Syria was ready for “full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression.”
Neither minister, however, offered any evidence to back their claim of rebel involvement in the chemical attack.
Lavrov said that Russia would continue to promote a peaceful settlement and may try to convene a gathering of all Syrian opposition figures to join in negotiations. He added that a US attack on Syria would deal a fatal blow to peace efforts.
Lavrov wouldn’t say how Russia could respond to a possible US attack on Syria, saying that “we wouldn’t like to proceed from a negative scenario and would primarily take efforts to prevent a military intervention.”
Putin said that Moscow would keep providing assistance to Syria in case of a US attack, but he and other Russian officials have made clear that Russia has no intention of engaging in hostilities.