WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – The Syrian government announced on Tuesday that after
decades of denying the existence of its chemical weapons program, the regime of
President Bashar Assad will renounce its stockpiles, sign the UN Chemical
Weapons Convention, and offer up its arsenal for destruction.
historic move comes as President Barack Obama has been preparing the American
people and the international community for punitive strikes against Assad’s
forces following the August 21 use of chemical weapons against civilians in the
suburbs of Damascus.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki accepted the
proposal, which Russia initiated, “to spare Syrian blood,” state television
Obama on Tuesday embraced the diplomatic solution, calling the
concession a possible breakthrough.
The president asked Congress to delay
votes on authorizing military strikes against Syria in order to give Russia time
to get Damascus to surrender any chemical weapons it possesses, according to US
senators.Crisis in Syria - full JPost.com coverage
“What he [Obama] wants is to check out the seriousness of the
Syrian and the Russian willingness to get rid of those chemical weapons in
He wants time to check it out,” Senate Armed Services Committee
Chairman Carl Levin told reporters.
Levin made his remarks after a lunch
meeting on Capitol Hill that Obama attended. The president was scheduled to
address the nation on Syria after midnight, Israel time.
closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Syria was canceled
after Russia withdrew its request for the session, Australia’s UN envoy said on
On Monday, Russia suggested placing Syria’s massive stockpiles
of chemical weapons under international monitor. Syria’s foreign minister said
in Moscow that his government was amenable to the idea and that Syria was even
willing to halt chemical production and identify the storage facilities holding
the country’s arms.
For over three decades, starting with the presidency
of Assad’s father, Syria’s government has officially denied the existence of its
chemical weapons program.
Speaking to ABC News on Monday night, Obama
said that a strike was “absolutely” on hold until diplomatic options were
“If we can do that without a military strike, that is
overwhelmingly my preference,” Obama said.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada),
the Senate majority leader, suggested that the resolution that was set for a
vote on Wednesday should be amended to reflect the current diplomatic
“We know exactly where the chemical weapons are,” Reid said,
calling for an “open process, even in the midst of the ongoing war.”
attempt to divert weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups would be met
with a “robust response” from the United States, Reid noted.
something works out, that would be great. But as Reagan said, trust but verify.
That’s what we’ll be doing going forward,” he added.
language would come from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Sen.
Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) drafted an
original use-of-force resolution last week.
Sources told The Jerusalem
that the new language would likely reflect a specified window for the
Syrian regime to identify and dispose of its chemical weapons
Despite the promising statements out of Damascus and Moscow,
White House officials and congressional leadership remained cautious that the
Syrians were genuinely interested in forfeiting their arsenal – the largest in
the Middle East, and Damascus’s greatest strategic deterrent against neighboring
Israel and its allies.
Putin called on the US to “pledge to renounce the
use of force” as a return overture.
But US officials across the aisle
agree that military pressure was what brought Syria to this concession, and
would be required to see the proposal through.
Testifying before the
House Armed Services and Intelligence Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry
said that Obama’s preferred path through the Syrian crisis “has been and is
diplomacy,” as his administration takes a “hard look” at the Russian
“It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be
verifiable,” Kerry said at the hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
He said that the UN
Security Council cannot become “a debating society,” and voiced skepticism that
Russia and China would sincerely allow for the passage of a strong resolution
after years of obstructing relatively weak statements merely condemning Assad’s
Assad has stockpiled over 1,000 tons of chemical arms, according
to French intelligence officials.
One committee member, in his opening
remarks, asked the panel how sequestration would affect the funding of a
military operation against Assad.
“We can’t make this decision based
solely on the budget,” Kerry said. “We are the United States of
Hagel told the committee that it should proceed as planned with
the resolution in order to continue pressure on the diplomatic
“For this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the
threat of a US military action – the credible, real threat of US military action
– must continue,” Hagel told the committee.
Meanwhile, at UN headquarters
in New York, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that his country
would present draft language for a binding resolution to the Security Council
with haste. At a press conference on Tuesday morning, Fabius said France
welcomed Russia’s proposal “with interest, but also with caution.”
don’t want it to be used as a diversionary tactic,” he said, indicating that
France still supported the idea of punishing Assad, even if he were to turn over
the weapons in question.
Fabius then announced that France would “take
the initiative” to present a draft resolution under Chapter VII of the UN
He said the resolution would condemn the August 21 chemical
attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus – an event the French government says
the Syrian government perpetrated.
The resolution will also demand more
transparency on Syria’s chemical weapons program and put in place a system of
monitoring Syria’s use of such weapons under the International Organization for
the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Additionally it will ensure
“extremely serious consequences” should Syria violate any of the OPCW’s rules,
and “punish the perpetrators” of the Ghouta attack under international
Chapter VII of the UN charter provides for the Security Council’s
peacekeeping operations and enables the Council to take military and
non-military action to “restore peace and security.” The text demands that the
Security Council first exhaust any and all diplomatic measures before resorting
to use of the military. The question now stands as to how toothless or toothful
France’s draft resolution will be.
Other proposals presented to the
Security Council with the aim of condemning the August 21 attack have resulted
in no vote among the permanent five members of the Security Council due to a
block by Russia.
European Union high representative Catherine Ashton also
released a statement on Tuesday, saying she “welcomed the proposal,” insisting
that a deal “be fully worked out as quickly as possible,” and asserting that the
“EU is working closely with our international partners on the issue and I
welcome... the intention of France to introduce a Resolution in the UN Security
Council to give effect to the proposal.”
At a Monday press conference, in
response to a reporter’s question about how quickly the UN could possibly take
control of Syria’s stock if the proposal were to move forward, UN
Secretary-General Ban Kimoon said simply, “I’m sure that the international
community will have very swift action to make sure that these chemical weapons
stocks will be stored sagely and will be destroyed. But first and foremost,
Syria must agree positively to this.”
Syrian officials have thus far
responded positively to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem announced on Tuesday
that his country would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, following urging
from Ashton to “take full responsibility for ensuring that their chemical
weapons are stored securely … and are not permitted to fall into the hands of
any other State or non-state actor.”
Unfortunately the process is not as
straightforward as just letting the Russians or the UN into the country to
collect the weapons. The OPCW, which curates the CWC, is also partly responsible
for helping countries implement anti-chemicalweapons policies and
Unless Syria ratifies the convention, the OPCW, and by
extension the UN, cannot do much.
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for the UN
secretary-general, said at a press briefing on Tuesday that Ban was “watching
with interest” the developments in the Security Council, and that the
secretary-general “has consistently called for Syria to accede to the chemical
weapons convention and to fully abide by its responsibility to maintain physical
security of any chemical weapons stockpiles in its possession.”
that “we are in touch with a number of member states” on whether they will be
able to help the UN safeguard any weapons that might be seized.
Tuesday, NGO Human Rights Watch released its own report of its investigation
into the Ghouta attack, saying “the evidence strongly suggests that Syrian
government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus
In Tel Aviv, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro took a few moments
during a lecture at an Institute for National Security Studies conference on the
legacy of the Yom Kippur War, to address the ongoing crisis in Syria.
is important that we, as the international community, ensure that the norm
against the use of chemical weapons is maintained. Now, if we can do that
without a military strike, that, of course, would be anyone’s preference,”
Shapiro said on Tuesday, echoing the stance currently coming out of
Addressing the newly devised diplomatic option proposed by
Russia, Shapiro said that working diplomatically with the rest of the
international community was still an option. However, he warned that “in our
judgment, there is no time to take the pressure off without putting a particular
time frame on it.
We will not permit any diplomatic initiatives to
[become] stalling tactics.”Noa Amouyal and Reuters contributed to this