Syria crisis: Russia 'hands chemical arms plan to US'

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen reports from the Syrian town of Maaloula

Russia has now handed over to the US its plans for making Syria's chemical weapons safe, Russian media say.

Russia announced its plans for placing Syria's stockpile under international control on Monday and Syria said it welcomed the initiative.

The proposal led US President Barack Obama to put military action against Syria on hold in favour of diplomacy.

Tense negotiations will now follow at the United Nations on the nature of any Security Council resolution.

The UN envoys of the permanent council members - the UK, US, France, China and Russia - are meeting in New York on Wednesday, diplomats say. One said the meeting had been set for 16:00 local time (20:00 GMT).

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

Analysis

Even without President Obama's uphill struggle to win over the US Congress and people, there's a strong feeling in the region that the psychological moment was lost in the few days after Parliament took Britain out of the picture on 29 August. The head of steam that seemed to herald an imminent attack has dissipated, and it is hard to imagine it being recreated.

"If they had hit then, when the moment was hot, they might have got away with it in terms of repercussions," said one diplomat. "But to come back cold, weeks later, would be something else."

Syrian rebels had been poised to exploit an American blow by trying to advance. Now they've suffered the double disappointment of seeing Mr Obama mired in domestic woes and then seizing the lifeline thrown by the Russian initiative, dismissed by the opposition coalition as a trick to win time.

Mr Obama has also made it clear throughout that he was not pushing for regime change, more cold water for rebel hopes. The chemical weapons crisis has not stopped the conflict grinding on in almost all parts of the country, with about 100 people killed daily and no end in sight.

In other developments:

  • On the ground, the Syrian army is trying to retake the Christian town of Maaloula. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen, who has been at the scene, says heavy fighting continued throughout the day. Maaloula was overrun by rebel forces, including members of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, at the weekend
  • The latest report by UN rights experts, released on Wednesday, says torture and rape are widespread and war crimes are being committed by both sides
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the UN and its members must share a "heavy burden" for their "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria"
  • Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said Syria had to be stripped of its chemical weapons and that those who had used them must "pay a price"
  • The UK-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an air strike on a field hospital in Aleppo province had killed at least 11 people
'Bilateral'

Russian news agencies quoted one Russian source as saying: "We handed over to the Americans a plan to place chemical weapons in Syria under international control. We expect to discuss it in Geneva."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to meet in the Swiss city on Thursday to discuss the proposal. They spoke by telephone on Wednesday.

One Russian source told the Itar-Tass news agency the meeting would be bilateral and not involve the UN.

US President Barack Obama: "I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions"

The source added: "It appears that the meeting should start on Thursday and end on Friday, although it is not ruled out that it may last until Saturday."

No further details of the proposal have been made public.

However, US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Moscow had so far "put forward ideas" rather than a "lengthy package".

She also confirmed that Mr Kerry would meet UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford in Moscow says there appears to be disagreement between the Russians and the Syrians over whether the weapons should be destroyed.

He says the Syrians are eventually likely to concede the point and allow the arsenal to be dismantled because the Russians will argue that is the only way to gain broader acceptance of the plan.

Syria conflict in numbers

  • Two million children have dropped out of school; 3,000 school buildings damaged or destroyed
  • Some 4.25 million people, mostly elderly and children, have abandoned their homes
  • Almost 200,000 living in overcrowded conditions with no clean water

Sources: UN, Reuters

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Tuesday made the fullest public admission so far that Syria owned a chemical weapons stockpile and gave a clear commitment to the Russian plan.

"We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons, and show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations," he said.

"Our adherence to the Russian initiative has a goal of halting the possession of all chemical weapons."

The US holds the Syrian government responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on 21 August, saying it killed 1,429 people. The Syrian government blames the attack on rebels.

Until Tuesday morning, Mr Obama's government had been lobbying hard for support in Congress for military strikes.

Start Quote

Why is America trying to solve another country's problems?”

End Quote Sam Damascus resident

But surveys of politicians had shown he was unlikely to win the planned vote.

In a televised speech from the White House, President Obama said the Russian plan and the regime's admission that it held chemical weapons were "encouraging signs".

"It's too early to tell whether [the Russian plan] will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," he said.

Speaking at the Pentagon on Wednesday amid ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Mr Obama said: "Let us have the wisdom to know that while force is at times necessary, force alone cannot build the world we seek."

There have already been heated debates at the UN over a possible Security Council resolution on Syria.

The French put forward a draft resolution that would be enforced by Chapter VII of the UN charter, which would in effect sanction the use of force if Syria failed in its obligations.

The draft resolution, obtained by Reuters, sets a 15-day deadline for Syria to provide a full account of the types and location of its chemical weapons.

Correspondents say Moscow opposes any resolution that would be authorised under Chapter VII.

Russia has also said any draft resolution putting the blame on the Syrian government would be unacceptable, and urged a non-binding declaration backing its initiative.

France insists military action remains an option.

President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday: "France will remain in permanent contact with its partners, mobilised to punish the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and to deter them from using them again."

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