Middle East

Syria crisis: Russia's Putin issues plea to US over Syria

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Media captionThe BBC's Jeremy Bowen reports from the town of Maaloula

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a direct personal appeal to the American people over the Syrian crisis.

He wrote in the New York Times that a US military strike against Syria could unleash a new wave of terrorism.

The US had threatened strikes, accusing the Syrian regime of killing hundreds in a poison-gas attack on 21 August.

Instead, Russia, an ally of Damascus, proposed that Syria hand over its chemical arsenal. The US and Russia are due to meet later to discuss that plan.

The Syrian government, which denies that it has used chemical weapons on its own people, has agreed at least partially to the Russian proposal.

The diplomatic moves prompted US President Barack Obama to put military action against Syria on hold.

In his New York Times article, Mr Putin said recent events had prompted him to "speak directly to the American people and their political leaders".

He warned that the UN could suffer the same fate as its predecessor, the League of Nations, if "influential countries... take military action without Security Council authorisation".

"The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the Pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders," he wrote.

"A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism."

He reiterated Russia's opinion that the gas attack of 21 August was probably carried out by opposition forces "to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons".

US Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva later to discuss Moscow's proposal.

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Media captionBBC News asked people in the Middle East to share their views on a possible military strike against Syria

Mr Lavrov told a news conference in Kazakhstan that both sides were bringing teams of specialists and experts to the meeting to thrash out the technical details of the plan.

He outlined three main phases of the proposal:

  • Syria joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production and use of the weapons
  • Syria reveals where its chemical weapons are stored and gives details of its programme
  • Experts decide on the specific measures to be taken

Mr Lavrov did not mention the destruction of the weapons, which is thought to be a sticking point in Moscow's negotiations with Damascus.

Gen Salim Idriss of the rebel Free Syrian Army has dismissed the Russian plan, saying it did not go far enough.

"[We] request not only that the chemical arsenal is put under international control, but [also] to judge the author of the crime before the International Criminal Court," he said.

On Wednesday, envoys of the five permanent UN Security Council members met in New York to discuss the plan.

One diplomat told the BBC that the UN envoys' talks were largely symbolic and that the serious questions would be left for Geneva.

Image caption Maaloula is one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world.
Image caption The town was overrun last week by rebel forces led by the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda.
Image caption Government troops were forced to withdraw to the outskirts of the town. In one online video, smoke was seen rising from the St Sarkis monastery
Image caption After days of fighting, reports said the government had retaken the town. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen, who visited Maaloula, saw pro-government militia on the streets.
Image caption However, our correspondent said fighting was still going on around the town.
Image caption In normal times, Maaloula has been a magnet for tourists, drawn by its ancient monasteries and hermits' caves, and the fact that its people still speak Aramaic.
Image caption Now, there are fears for that heritage, with reports that militant Islamist rebels have attacked religious buildings and statues.
Image caption But opposition leaders have blamed pro-regime militias for that, accusing the government of terrorising minorities while trying to pose as their protectors.
Image caption On Tuesday, hundreds of Christians attended funerals in the capital's Damascus for three Maaloula residents killed in the fighting.
Image caption "Maaloula is the wound of Christ," mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the Old City's Christian quarter.

Republican Senator John McCain, who has long argued for US intervention in Syria, said he was "puzzled" why Mr Kerry was meeting Mr Lavrov in Geneva.

"Why doesn't Lavrov come to the UN and everybody agree on a resolution and pass it? It's got to be a resolution through the Security Council," he said.

Diplomats predict that talks at the UN Security Council will continue for several days after the Geneva meeting before any resolution can be put to a vote.

France has already been working on 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.

However, Russia has already indicated that this would be unacceptable, as would any resolution blaming the Syrian government for chemical attacks. Russia, supported by China, has blocked three draft resolutions condemning the Assad government.

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

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Media captionNick Bryant explains how the UN Security Council works and how likely it is to agree a Syria resolution

As the diplomatic efforts continue, the Syrian army has been trying to retake the Christian town of Maaloula, which was overrun at the weekend by rebel forces, including members of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen, who visited Maaloula on Wednesday, says fighting has been continuing despite earlier reports that government forces had retaken the town.

Meanwhile, video footage has emerged on the internet appearing to show Farsi-speaking men fighting in the northern city of Aleppo. Iran has long been accused of helping Syrian government forces.