Putin Appeals to U.S. Public on Eve of Syria Negotiations

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a rare direct appeal to the American public, urged the Obama administration to embrace a proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical arms as foreign ministers from the U.S. and Russia prepared to meet to discuss the initiative.

In a New York Times opinion article published last night, Putin called on President Barack Obama to adopt the Russian-backed proposal as an alternative to the military strikes on Syria that the U.S. has advocated in response to a chemical attack near Damascus last month. Putin said he was encouraged that Obama has asked Congress to delay voting on a use-of-force measure while Russia’s offer is pursued.

“The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction,” Putin wrote.

Russia’s proposal is emerging as a possible diplomatic way out of the standoff over Syria’s chemical arsenal amid U.S. threats to use force against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The plan faces its first test when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets this evening in Geneva for two days of talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Proposal Questioned

En route to Geneva, Lavrov told reporters that there is widespread support for establishing “multilateral international control over Syrian chemical weapons.” A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration wants to discuss the feasibility of such a plan, a timetable and how the destruction of Assad’s arsenal can be verified.

Lavrov and Kerry are scheduled to meet for a first round of talks at 7:30 p.m. Swiss time.

U.S. lawmakers, wary of granting Obama the authority for a strike, remain skeptical about Russia’s proposal. Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, said the idea has “some potential,” though he said he doubted its prospects due to the “lack of credibility on the part of the Russians and the Syrian regime.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves -- the chances of this happening are a lot less than 50 percent,” he said yesterday on CNN.

‘American Exceptionalism’

In his article, Putin maintained that the Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus was the work of Syria’s opposition rather than government forces. In a nationally televised address Sept. 10, Obama blamed Assad’s regime for the attack, which he said killed more than 1,400 people.

While he said his relationship with Obama was improving, Putin faulted the American president’s willingness to consider a military strike without United Nations approval. Such an attack “could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance,” he wrote.

The Russian leader, who has emerged as Obama’s chief international antagonist in his second term, criticized the U.S. president’s reference in the speech to “American exceptionalism” as a justification for a strike in Syria.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way.”

Renounce Force

One question going into the Geneva talks is whether Russia will stand by Putin’s statement Sept. 10 setting what the Obama administration may regard as an unacceptable condition -- that the U.S. and other nations must renounce the use of force against Assad’s regime if negotiations are to go forward.

The U.S. will need to see benchmarks for progress and establish a timeline for action to assess the credibility of the proposal, an official said en route to Geneva. One benchmark would be how quickly Assad discloses his entire inventory of chemical weapons, the official said.

Kerry will not negotiate with Lavrov the framework for a United Nations Security Council resolution that could establish whether military force could be used to enforce any disarmament plan, the official said, although issues of verification and enforcement will be discussed.

The five permanent Security Council members met for a half-hour yesterday at the Russian mission in New York to discuss a draft resolution offered by France that has raised Russian objections.

Syrian Silence

There has been no public comment yet from Assad affirming a Sept. 10 statement by his foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, that the government supports the Russian plan and is prepared to stop making chemical weapons, reveal storage sites, and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such arms.

Muallem’s statement marked the first time Syria has acknowledged having such weapons. Syria may have about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents and components for sarin and VX nerve agents, Kerry told a House committee in Washington on Sept. 10.

The U.S. hasn’t changed its position that Assad needs to leave office to end the civil war and that Syria must form a democratic government, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday.

Russia has opposed efforts to oust Assad, including blocking measures at the UN. Putin, in his article, echoed the Syrian leader’s characterization of opposition fighters as al-Qaeda terrorists and militants who want to create an Islamic state.

Rebel Aid

The Central Intelligence Agency has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria after months of delay in providing arms promised by the Obama administration, the Washington Post reported. News of the deliveries appeared after U.S. lawmakers and Syrian opposition leaders complained publicly that none of the lethal aid had been delivered.

The aid, which two U.S. officials familiar with the program told Bloomberg consists of automatic rifles, other small arms and ammunition, was held up largely because U.S. intelligence agencies had difficulty sorting out competing rebel factions and identifying those with extremist links.

In addition, said the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing intelligence operations, some Obama administration officials were wary of any military involvement in Syria’s civil war. Their reluctance to begin delivering weapons faded as rebel groups with links to al-Qaeda gained ground on mainstream groups favored by the U.S. and the Assad regime made advances in opposition-held territory.

‘Stalling Tactic’

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the most prominent advocate for aiding the Syrian rebels and using U.S. strikes to help their fight, said the Russian initiative seems to be a “stalling tactic.”

“I worry we have a kind of a game of rope-a-dope for awhile and the slaughter goes on” during diplomatic negotiations over Russia’s proposal, McCain told reporters at a Wall Street Journal breakfast yesterday.

A failure to reach a disarmament agreement in the next few days “would strengthen the president’s hand to go back to Congress and say, ‘Look, I tried this avenue and it’s been rejected,’” McCain said.

In a classified briefing yesterday for House members, administration officials said there will be “a new series of assessments next week” after Kerry’s Geneva talks and an anticipated report from UN weapons inspectors, according to Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat.

Resolution Held

Optimism that the U.S. would avoid a new military conflict in a region that pumps about a third of global oil supplies helped send stocks higher, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index yesterday reaching a one-month high of 1,689.13. West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery rose today for the second day, gaining 0.8 percent to $108.30 at 11:30 a.m. London time.

The Russian diplomatic initiative prompted Senate leaders to put on hold consideration of a resolution authorizing the use of force, which lawmakers said would be a difficult vote with an uncertain outcome in a chamber where more than a third of the members were against authorization or leaning toward opposition before Obama’s speech.

“Leaders in Damascus and Moscow should understand that Congress will be watching these negotiations very closely,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said yesterday. If there was a sign it may be a “ploy,” the Senate would resume plans to authorize military strikes, he said.

Weapons Specialists

Russia has given the U.S. a proposal for Kerry and Lavrov to discuss, according to a Russian official who asked not to be identified describing internal matters. Psaki said she “would characterize it more as ideas than as a lengthy packet.”

Kerry will bring to Geneva a group of experts to discuss the complexities of imposing a plan for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons and related materials, Psaki said. U.S. officials “are working on exactly what would be required” for international monitors to take control of Syria’s arsenal, Kerry told lawmakers Sept 10.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said in his speech.

Putin’s involvement “is significant,” Carney said yesterday. “Russia is now putting its prestige on the line.”

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