US hints at interest in Russian proposal for Syria chemical weapons monitor

Russia proposes Syria put chemical arms under int'l control to avoid US strike; Damascus "welcomes" proposal, but stops short of saying Assad accepts it; State Department: "We can't have this be another stalling tactic."

Obama and Lavrov 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Lavrov 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A casual response to a reporter’s question from a tired secretary of state while in London on Monday may have just shifted US foreign policy in the Middle East.
After meeting with British officials over the Syrian crisis, John Kerry said that the US could forgo a military strike against targets of President Bashar Assad’s regime if he were, within a week, to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and completely forfeit his arsenal, estimated to weigh over 1,000 tons by French intelligence officials.
“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it,” Kerry said, throwing up his hands at the press conference. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov jumped on the comments, calling a news conference to announce a proposal that would demand Syria allow international oversight over its chemical weapons program.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al- Moallem, in Moscow at the time, said that Syria “welcomed” the proposal, but stopped short of saying explicitly that Assad’s government accepted it.
“I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership’s concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people,” he said.
A US government official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that the Russian proposal was an effort to buy time, and that it would be ignored.
“There’s no mechanism to implement what the Russians are proposing,” said the official.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the only organization that has monitoring power over chemical arms, the official remarked. But the OPCW only has jurisdiction over signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria is not a member.
And the OPCW does not tolerate the existence of such weapons, but oversees their destruction, which the Russians have not proposed.
If Assad truly welcomed the proposal, it would mark a historic shift in Syrian policy.
Syria is one of only seven countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the acceptance of an international monitor requires that the Assad regime admit to the existence of their decades-old chemical weapons program. Assad has yet to do that, even as of Sunday, when he declined to confirm the program to American journalist Charlie Rose in an interview.
But as the day progressed, international actors began to come out in favor of the proposal.
Speaking after meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles were a danger to the world if left unaddressed, and that the use of weapons of mass destruction “violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order.”
“This is a fluid situation,” Clinton said, adding that, if the regime “immediately” forfeited its chemical arms, “that would be an important step.”
“We’re only having this discussion within the context of the threat of US military action,” said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on Monday. “We can’t have this be another stalling tactic.”
Harf said that the US would take a “hard look” at the proposal, but that it was a “highly unlikely” scenario, and that the secretary “was not making a proposal” when he was speaking in London to reporters.
Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the most vocal proponents of the president’s plan for military action against Syria, came out in favor of the proposal on Monday.
“I believe that Russia can be most effective in encouraging the Syrian president to stop any use of chemical weapons and place all his chemical munitions, as well as storage facilities, under United Nations control until they can be destroyed,” Feinstein said in a statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday that Syria should be encouraged to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision, but said the world needed to ensure that discussion of such an idea did not become a distraction.
“If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision clearly that would be a big step forward,” Cameron told Parliament.
“We have to be careful, though, to make sure this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something else rather than the problem on the table.”
In response to questions about the Russian proposal, UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon said Monday that he may ask the Security Council to demand Syria move its chemical arms stocks to Syrian sites where they can be safely stored and destroyed.
Speaking to reporters in New York, Ban said he may ask the 15-nation body to demand that Syria join the international anti-chemical weapons convention, a treaty that Damascus has never signed.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power broke her careful silence around the issue of Syria at the UN on Thursday, and spoke to the press about the goings-on within the meetings between the permanent five members of the Security Council. Power said that the US’s assessment of the situation led to “one stark conclusion,” that Assad had attacked civilians with chemical weapons, but that the Security Council would not be doing anything about it anytime soon.
“We in the United States agree with the view that – at times like this – the Security Council should live up to its obligations and should act,” she said. “Unfortunately, for the past two and a half years, the system devised in 1945 precisely to deal with threats of this nature did not work as it was supposed to. Instead, the system has protected the prerogatives of Russia, the patron of a regime that would brazenly stage the world’s largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century.”
She went on to blame Russia for blocking the Security Council from issuing a press statement following the alleged attack on August 21, and said that because of the rift between the parties, she saw “no viable path forward in this Security Council.”
When asked about the fact that there were no discussions about Syria on the Security Council’s program of work for September, president of the Security Council Gary Quinlan of Australia told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that “most of us have concluded for that moment that it would not be productive or useful to have a discussion on this in the Security Council because it would lead to nowhere.”
Despite the Security Council’s seeming resignation to inaction, Syria’s crisis dominated the G20 meeting in St.
Petersburg, Ban told reporters at a short press conference on Monday, “in a way that no other political development has ever dominated at the G20.”
That main focus, he said, was on the alleged use of chemical weapons, and on the UN investigative team’s forthcoming report.
Ban said he had not yet received the report, nor did he know what it will contain.
But, he said, “should [the use of chemical weapons] be confirmed, this would be an abominable crime, and we would have to do something about it.”
To that end, Ban called on the Security Council to end its “embarrassing paralysis,” and said that he was already considering various proposals he could present to the Security Council for what the next step might be.
Ban said that he had “taken note” of the statements made on Monday both by Lavrov and by Kerry.
“I welcome these ideas,” he said. “I’m considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed.”
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to worsen, UN Undersecretary- General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos told reporters on Friday. UNHCR has asked for $4.4 billion for refugee work in and around Syria at the beginning of 2013, but so far is still lacking $3.3b. in funds.
“We are continuing to push for additional funding,” she said, via livestream from Lebanon. “This is the biggest appeal we have made. Our concern is not just about raising money for Syria, but also about raising money for other crisis in Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan.”
In terms of what the UN would do with its humanitarian personnel currently in Syria – numbered somewhere around 1,000 – if there were a military strike, Amos said, they were “mindful of the possible impact” that an attack could have, both for UN workers and in terms of how the flow of refugees might increase.
“We always have contingency plans on the basis that numbers might go up unexpectedly,” he said.