Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said he isn’t “100 percent” certain that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will fulfill his commitment to give up chemical weapons.
Putin’s comments today may indicate that Russia, Syria’s arms provider and ally, harbors doubts about Assad’s reliability, though less so than the U.S., which has demanded a quick and intrusive process to prevent the use of Syria’s chemical arsenal and to test whether the Syrian leader will give it up.
Putin said Syria has taken “practical steps” by joining the Chemical Weapons Convention barring such arms and it now faces a disarmament process under a U.S.-Russia accord reached last week in Geneva that begins with an accounting of the weapons inventory due Sept. 21.
“Will it be possible to bring everything to a conclusion?” Putin said in Valdai, Russia. “I can’t say 100 percent. But everything that we’ve seen up to now inspires confidence that this can and will be done.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United Nations Security Council “must be prepared to act next week” to pass a binding resolution requiring the Assad regime to abide by terms of the U.S.-Russian agreement.
“It is vital for the international community to stand up and speak out in the strongest possible terms about the importance of enforceable action to rid the world of Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kerry told reporters.
The U.S. is seeking “a binding resolution that codifies the strongest possible mechanism to achieve the goal and to achieve it rapidly,” Kerry said. A report issued by UN inspectors provides “clear and compelling evidence” that Syrian government forces carried out an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus, Kerry said. Assad, with Russia’s backing, denies that his forces carried out the attack.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Kerry was addressing the fundamentally different views the Russians and the U.S. have of the UN report. While the team was barred under its mandate from placing blame, the U.S. and independent analysts said details such as munitions types and rocket trajectories implicate government forces in the attack the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
‘Basis of Reality’
“I think he realizes we are in a ‘basis of reality’ dispute with the Russians, and they are not recognizing the facts here,” Tabler said in an e-mail.
With the threat of military action receding, West Texas Intermediate crude fell for the fourth time in five days. WTI crude for October delivery, which expires tomorrow, slid $1.68 to settle at to $106.39 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
As the U.S. threatened military action earlier this month, Russia proposed that Syria turn over its chemical weapons to international control and Assad said Syria would join the convention, which requires steps to declare, secure and eliminate his arsenal.
Assad said yesterday that he envisions it will take about a year to destroy his chemical weapons and related equipment. Meeting the disclosure and inspection conditions is “no problem, we can do it tomorrow,” Assad said in a Fox News Channel interview.
While saying he is committed to surrendering those weapons, Assad gave no ground on his assertions that rebels, not his forces, were responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack.
Assad said he has set no conditions on cooperating with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, the body based in The Hague that implements the treaty. Previously, he’d said that Syria’s actions depended on the U.S. and others not supplying weapons to rebel forces.
“We are committed” to the full requirements of the treaty and any delay in implementation “is not about will, it’s about techniques,” he said.
Assad faces an early test because, under the U.S.-Russia accord negotiated last week in Geneva by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Syria is supposed to turn over a full inventory of its chemical weapons arsenal by Sept. 21. That would then be subject to verification by the OPCW.
Assad said that eliminating the arsenal is a complicated process that will be done as directed by OPCW experts. He said he’s been told it may take about a year and cost as much as $1 billion to destroy the chemical weapons without creating environmental problems.
Assad didn’t explicitly address the U.S.-Russia accord, which averted American military action in return for Syria giving up its chemical arsenal. He presented Syria’s promised actions as occurring under the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined last week after decades during which it didn’t acknowledge having chemical arms.
“Whenever we join an agreement as Syria, we always committed to those agreements,” he said.
The Fox News interview in Damascus was arranged by Dennis Kucinich, an anti-war activist who’d met with Assad on a past visit to Syria as a Democratic congressman from Ohio. Kucinich, who works as a contributor to Fox News, was joined by Fox correspondent Greg Palkot in questioning Assad.
The U.S.-Russia accord sets an objective of completing the destruction or removal of chemical weapons and related equipment by next June 30.
While Kerry has said that Syria “must submit” a full disclosure of its chemical weapons by Sept. 21, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday that the date -- one week after the accord was reached in Geneva -- and others in the accord were more a “timeline” than “a hard and fast deadline.”
Russia’s army may send chemical and biological experts to Syria to assist with the operation, Kommersant reported, citing an unidentified military official.
The unedited, hour-long Fox News interview provided Assad with an extended opportunity to present his view of the civil war in his nation that has killed more than 100,000 people and uprooted about 6 million.
He described the rebels as 80 percent to 90 percent jihadists, dismissing broad public opposition that started with peaceful protests, and he said that more than 15,000 government soldiers have died in the 2 1/2 years of fighting. While saying he is open to peace talks, his view of how that might proceed differs from that of opposition leaders, who insist that he must quit as part of any deal.
Syria yesterday gave Russia what it said was evidence supporting its case that rebels were responsible for the chemical-weapons attack last month. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said during a visit to Damascus yesterday that Russia thinks the UN report “was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient,” according to Russian state broadcaster RT.
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