US declares victory with Russian plan on Syrian chemical arms

Obama says military threat put diplomatic deal on table.

obama walking in white house 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
obama walking in white house 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – The Obama administration on Wednesday declared that the credible threat of force against Syria led its embattled leader, Bashar Assad, to renounce his chemical arsenal after decades of denying its existence.
On Monday, Russia proposed that Syria cede control of its chemical weapons program to international monitors so it can be destroyed.
Syrian leaders accepted the deal, saying their government would identify its chemical sites and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” President Barack Obama said in an address to his nation on Tuesday night. “But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
The deal is on the table, Obama said, “in part because of the credible threat of US military action,” and because of his personal diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s national address, originally scheduled to make the case to a skeptical public that striking Syria was both a moral and strategic imperative of the US, became a justification for the threat of force as well as an explanation of why his administration would give diplomacy a chance.
“I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” he said. “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to begin two days of meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the details of a plan.
They will be joined by chemical weapons experts, who will explain exactly what would be required of an investigations team challenged with dismantling a 1,000- ton chemical weapons arsenal in the middle of Syria’s civil war.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration had a “responsibility to pursue” the deal, which would, if realized, be “an enormous step forward.”
“We’re not naive about the challenges. We don’t think this will be easy. But that’s why we’re going to Geneva,” Psaki said.
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the possible diplomatic breakthrough on Wednesday and said he was “hopeful” that the US was “serious” about refraining from a strike on his country’s ally.
“I am hopeful that the United States’ new attitude to Syria is serious and not a game with the media,” Khamenei said in a public address. “For weeks they have threatened war against the people of this region for the benefit of the Zionists.”
The US said it has been in contact with the Iranians throughout the crisis.
“We have conveyed our views regarding Syria and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to the Iranian leadership through the Swiss, our protecting power in Tehran,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told The Jerusalem Post.
“This is a channel we have available to us to convey our views on a range of regional security matters.” Psaki told reporters that the administration is “working towards a binding Security Council resolution,” while acknowledging that Russia may obstruct that path. Russia and China have both opposed even symbolic resolutions in the Security Council over the past two years condemning the violence in Syria.
France has drafted a resolution that would cite Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the international community to use military power to enforce its provisions.
After two days of frantic back and forth, sudden declarations of cooperation, and emergency meetings that were subsequently canceled, the UN seems to have quieted down. However, Farhan Haq, spokesman for the secretary-general, assured reporters that “things are still moving very quickly” and that “the UN still has a strong role to play.”
Haq remained adamant that no timeline could be given for when the results of the UN investigative team’s laboratory tests on the samples taken from sites in Syria could be released, nor did he comment on what the UN would do in the event it was determined that a non-state actor, and not the Syrian government, perpetrated the alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Secretary-General Ban Kimoon “welcomes President Obama’s decision to take time to further explore this diplomatic opportunity to achieve this crucially important objective,” Haq said.
He further said he hoped Russian and US meetings later this week between Lavrov and Kerry would be “productive.”
Haq would not comment on whether the UN-Arab League’s joint special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would participate in the meetings between Kerry and Lavrov, or whether he would meet separately with the two diplomats. Haq confirmed that Brahimi would travel to Geneva later this week and that Brahimi and his team “are in regular contact with the US and Russian governments.”
Also on Wednesday, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report detailing the findings of an independent commission into several massacres and other war crimes that have occurred since the beginning of the Syria crisis in 2011.
The report, which covers the period of fighting between May 15, 2013, and July 15, 2013, confirms one civilian massacre perpetrated by rebel groups, and at least seven by the Syrian government. Between 150 and 250 people were killed in Bania and Ras al-Nabaa, two coastal towns known to be sympathetic to the rebels. The report confirmed the reported mass killing of 450 people by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters during a battle for the town of Qusair in western Syria.
The one mass killing attributed to rebel groups occurred in June in the town of Hatla in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, during which 40 people were killed.