Russian President Vladimir Putin set a condition that endangers the diplomatic initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, saying it depends on the U.S. and other nations renouncing the use of force against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Putin’s remarks complicate the outlook for the Russian proposal a day after it was presented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who had seized on comments in London by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the possibility of Syria turning over its chemical-weapons stockpile.
Kerry and Lavrov plan to meet in Geneva on Sept. 12 to discuss Syria, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement.
Russia’s effort to reach a deal “makes sense and can function and work only in the case that we hear that the American side -- and all that support the U.S. in this situation -- renounce the use of force,” Putin said, according to a statement in Russian today on the Kremlin’s website.
Putin’s comments put him directly at odds with President Barack Obama, who met today with Senate Democrats. The president asked senators to “keep the threat of credible military action available,” Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware said after the meeting.
Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee in a hearing today that only such a “credible use of force” threat -- bolstered by Congress authorizing strikes -- can force a diplomatic solution after Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens.
Breaking with past government denials, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said today that his government is prepared to stop making chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such arms.
“We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations,” Muallem said in a statement he read on Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese television station.
The convention, joined by 189 countries, prohibits the production of chemical weapons and requires their disclosure and eventual destruction.
Syria may have about “1,000 metric tons of numerous chemical agents, binary components, including finished sulfur, mustard, binary components for sarin and VX,” Kerry told the House panel today. “Most of that is in the form of unmixed binary components, probably stored mostly in tanks. But they also possess sarin-filled munitions and other things that I can’t go into here,” he said.
Disputes over what should be included in a United Nations resolution led Russia to cancel a UN Security Council meeting on Syria that it had requested for today, according to two officials at the world body who asked not to be identified in advance of a decision.
While the U.S. wants to maintain the threat of military action as leverage on Assad, Obama told ABC News yesterday that a U.S. attack “absolutely” would be put on hold if Syria were to follow through on Russia’s initiative and give up its chemical weapons arsenal.
Kerry, who spoke with Lavrov today, said that Russia needs to show its disarmament plan can work because “this cannot be a game.” A deal on Syria must be contained in a binding Security Council resolution with “consequences” for non-compliance, he said during an online chat session today.
Fissures developed between France and Russia over whether to hold Assad’s regime responsible for using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack in which the U.S. says 1,400 people died, including more than 400 children.
France said it would ask the Security Council to approve a resolution demanding that Syria place its chemical arms under international control, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today in Paris.
The draft also will call for the International Criminal Court to have jurisdiction over those responsible for using chemical weapons, according to Fabius. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the French proposal unacceptable and said in a statement on its website that it would offer its own draft to the Security Council.
Obama, who consulted today with U.K. and French leaders on working together at the UN, is scheduled to present his case for U.S. military action in a nationally televised address tonight.
Earlier in the day, Obama’s top national security advisers recalibrated their campaign for congressional authorization of military strikes, amid questions about whether and how Russia’s initiative would work. Democratic senators who met today with Obama said he asked them to delay a vote on authorizing force.
Earlier in the day, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators worked on a proposal that would authorize a military strike if Syria didn’t meet benchmarks to relinquish its chemical weapons, according to a person familiar with the Senate talks who asked not to be identified discussing the drafting. The group of senators was led by by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York.
‘Not Unlimited Time’
“The Senate should give these international discussions time to play out -- but not unlimited time,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today.
Sentiment in Congress against authorizing the use of force continued to increase. In the Senate, 37 members would vote no or are leaning that way, 21 would vote yes or are leaning toward a yes vote, and 42 are undecided or haven’t said, according to a count by Bloomberg News. In the House, 237 members are opposed or leaning against the authorization, a majority, with 27 voting yes or leaning yes and 169 undecided or unknown.
Kerry said the U.S. is looking to Russia to put forward a detailed plan. “We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee.
“A lot of people say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging,” Kerry said. “Well, it’s the credible threat of force that has been on the table for these last weeks that has, for the first time, brought this regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal. And it is the threat of this force, and our determination to hold Assad accountable, that has motivated others to even talk about a real and credible international action that might have an impact.”
While the proposal for chemical-weapons removal opened a diplomatic alternative to military strikes, questions also grew about the hurdles to such disarmament.
“We’ll never see this Russian plan put into action as it’s the sort of thing that takes years to negotiate,” said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. He said Putin’s goal “is to play for time, to push off the talk of strikes as long as possible. The longer he pushes them off, the less likely they are. I’d say the chances now of strikes are about 5 percent.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told a parliamentary committee that any proposal needs to be tested “to make sure that this isn’t some delaying tactic, that this isn’t some ruse.”
The UN Security Council has been immobilized on Syria for months by Russia’s threat to veto measures directed at the Assad regime.
Kerry said that Obama “will take a hard look at” whatever plan Russia puts forward “but it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable, it cannot be a delaying tactic and, if the United Nations Security Council seeks to be the vehicle to make it happen, that cannot be allowed to simply become a debating society,” Kerry said.
Global stocks rose for a seventh day, the longest gain since 2011, oil fell and the yen slid as Russia bid to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and data showed China’s economy is improving. West Texas intermediate crude for October delivery declined $2.45, or 2.2 percent, to $107.07 a barrel at 1:59 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract touched $106.39, the lowest intraday price since Sept. 3.
“Fears of an attack on Syria and a disruption of supply are fading fast,” said Michael Wittner, head of oil market research at Societe Generale SA in New York.
Spokesmen for Syrian groups seeking to oust Assad said they still want the threat of military strikes to pressure the regime to a political settlement. Russia’s proposal to isolate and destroy Syrian chemical weapons isn’t sincere, Farah Al-Atassi, a Syrian coalition member, said today at the National Press Club in Washington.
“We definitely want this strike,” said Najib Ghadbian, special representative of the Syrian opposition coalition to the U.S. and the UN.
Russia and the U.S. have been on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war, which has killed at least 100,000 people since March 2011. Assad’s army receives military supplies from Russia, a decades-old ally of his family. The U.S. backs the rebels fighting to oust him and has signaled it may escalate support to include weapons.
In Moscow, Lavrov said today the chemical-weapons proposal wasn’t a solo effort by Russia, and “stems from contacts we had with our American colleagues.”
Kerry, who had raised the hypothetical possibility of Syria turning over its weapons yesterday -- in what his spokeswoman portrayed as “just a rhetorical argument” seized on by Russia -- told the House panel today that he didn’t misspeak and wasn’t commenting “off the cuff.”