Washington pauses plans for military strike, as Syria agrees to chemical weapons deal

Obama asks Congress to delay vote on authorization of force.

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves a luncheon meeting (photo credit: Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama leaves a luncheon meeting
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
The 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 reported.
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.
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“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 Syria.
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.
An emergency 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 Tuesday.
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 exhausted.
“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 development.
“We know exactly where the chemical weapons are,” Reid said, calling for an “open process, even in the midst of the ongoing war.”
Any attempt to divert weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups would be met with a “robust response” from the United States, Reid noted.
“If 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.
New resolution 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 Post that the new language would likely reflect a specified window for the Syrian regime to identify and dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal.
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 proposal.
“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 regime.
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 America.”
Hagel told the committee that it should proceed as planned with the resolution in order to continue pressure on the diplomatic front.
“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.”
“We 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 charter.
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 law.
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 proposal.
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 procedures.
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.”
He added 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.
Also on 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 suburbs.”
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.
“It 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 Washington.
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 report.