Syria became a full member of the global anti-chemical weapons treaty on Thursday, the country's UN envoy said, a move that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had promised as part of a deal to avoid US air strikes.
Several UN diplomats and a UN official, however, told Reuters on condition of anonymity that it was not yet clear that Syria had fulfilled all the conditions for legal accession to the treaty.
"I think there are a few more steps they have to take (before Syria is a signatory) but that's why we're studying the document," a UN official said.
Syria was one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to destroying their stockpiles.
"Legally speaking Syria has become, starting today, a full member of the (chemical weapons) convention," Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters in New York after submitting relevant documents to the United Nations.
He said Assad signed a legislative decree on Thursday that "declared the Syrian Arab Republic approval to accede to the convention" and that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had written to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to notify it of Syria's decision to join the convention.
"The chemical weapons in Syria are a mere deterrence against the Israeli nuclear arsenal," Ja'afari said as he waved a document he said was a CIA report on Israel's chemical weapons program.
"It's a deterrent weapon and now the time has come for the Syrian government to join the (convention) as a gesture to show our willingness to be against all weapons of mass destruction," he said.
Under threat of US military action after an Aug. 21 poison gas attack on Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds, Assad's government agreed to a Russian plan to hand over its chemical arsenal to international control and join the convention.
Assad's government blames the rebels for the attack. Washington blames the government and says the sarin gas used killed more than 1,400 people, including many children.
The United Nations said earlier on Thursday it had received a document from Syria on Thursday on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty.
"In the past few hours we have received a document from the government of Syria that is being translated, which is to be an accession document concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention," UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.
Assad had told Russian state television on Thursday that Damascus would send the documents on joining the convention in a few days.
"The petition will contain technical documents required to sign the agreement," Assad said in comments translated into Russian. "After that, work will start that will lead to the signing of the convention prohibiting chemical weapons."
Earlier on Thursday, Assad said he would only finalize plans to abandon his chemical arsenal when the US stopped threatening him.
Assad told Russian state television he was ready to take further steps – including handing over information on stockpiles – but added the process would not be completed until Washington stopped its threats.
“I want to make it clear to everybody: These mechanisms will not be fulfilled one-sidedly. This does not mean that Syria will sign the documents, meet the conditions and that is it. This is a bilateral process, it is aimed, first and foremost, at the United States ending the policy of threats targeted at Syria,” Assad said.
“When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized,” he said in comments translated into Russian.
The interview with Assad was broadcast as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry were due to start talks in Geneva, where a Russian delegation is expected to outline details of the plan.
Kerry on Thursday reiterated the US position that a military strike might be needed if diplomacy over Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile fails.
“President Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad’s capacity to deliver these weapons,” Kerry said in Geneva at the start of talks with Lavrov.
Hours after announcing that Lavrov would travel to Switzerland to negotiate with the United States over the termination of Syria’s chemical-weapons program, Russian President Vladimir Putin harshly criticized America’s war posture throughout the crisis and claims made by Barack Obama on Tuesday that America stands exceptionally on the world stage.
In an opinion piece published by The New York Times, Putin said that America’s “ineffective and pointless” use of “brute force” in faraway internal conflicts encouraged nations to seek weapons of mass destruction.
A US strike against Assad’s military assets, Putin said, “could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”
He warned that a US attack could threaten global order.
“No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage,” Putin said. “This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
In a televised address on Tuesday night, Obama said the US had a moral and strategic imperative to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being used against civilians.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” he said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
“That’s what makes America different,” he continued. “That’s what makes us exceptional.
With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
Responding to the US president, Putin called it “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” since “God created us equal.”
US politicians responded aggressively to the Russian president’s words, reflecting widespread distrust of the deal presented by his government that would see Syria’s massive chemical- weapons arsenal put under international control, for its ultimate destruction.
“I almost wanted to vomit,” Senate Foreign Relations chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) told CNN after reading Putin’s Times piece on Wednesday night.
At a meeting with his cabinet on Thursday, Obama said US Secretary of State Kerry would report back soon from Geneva on whether the Russian offer “can yield a concrete result.”
Obama, whose attention has been consumed by Syria since he threatened military strikes to punish Assad’s government for a poison-gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus suburbs two weeks ago, said he was turning to domestic priorities while backing Kerry’s efforts.
This week’s 11th-hour Russian initiative interrupted a Western march to war, persuading Obama to put strikes on hold.
In the interview with Russian TV, Assad confirmed that Syria would give up its chemical weapons, but strongly denied that the threat of a US military strike pushed him to forfeit the arsenal, measured by French intelligence officials at more than 1,000 tons.
“Syria is transferring its chemical weapons to international control because of Russia,” Assad said. “The threats of the United States had no influence on the decision to put the weapons under [international] control.”
Before those threats, Syria had refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention – which its government says it will now do – and would not acknowledge the existence of its chemical program.
In the interview, Assad confirmed that “in the next couple of days, Syria will send a petition to the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”
A spokesman for Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon confirmed on Thursday that the UN had just received a document from the government of Syria that was in the process of being translated. The spokesman said it was meant to be an accession document concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention, which he called “the first step” toward joining the treaty. The spokesman would not say how quickly the document would be translated or when it would be made public.
Before a next step can be taken, the international community has to wait for the results of the report by the UN chemicalweapons investigative team, Security Council president Gary Quinlan of Australia said. The results, however, seem to already be widely known: According to an anonymous member of the inspection team who spoke to Foreign Policy magazine on Wednesday, the report is expected to show that chemical weapons were used on August 21 outside Damascus, and it may implicate the Assad government in the attack.
The source told Foreign Policy the team will present its findings to the secretary-general on Monday, a timeline that both the secretary-general’s spokesman and the president of the security council refused to confirm.
Spokesman Farhan Haq merely said the release of the report was “still some days away.”
Quinlan said they were expecting the report to be presented “sooner rather than later,” but that Ban had not yet “advised us [Australia] on when he would be receiving the report.”
Quinlan did say Ban had “reconfirmed his desire to have a meeting with the council as soon as the report became available.”
Haq told reporters he was “aware of the speculation” in the media over what the report will say, but would not comment further on the Foreign Policy’s report, saying only, “It will become clear once we have the document, and then you can hopefully see for yourselves what the evidence shows.”
As for what the Security Council might do once the report was presented, Quinlan said, “There are texts out there, and there has been much discussion in the council, particularly among the permanent members.”
In Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Assad would not fulfill the obligations of the proposed deal and was buying time to commit further massacres.
“The Assad regime has not lived up to any of its pledges, it has won time for new massacres and continues to do so,” Erdogan said. “We are doubtful that the promises regarding chemical weapons will be met.”