WASHINGTON/GENEVA – The US and Russia Thursday began tense negotiations to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his country will cede control of its chemical weapons to the international community.
Talks began in Geneva between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on a four-step plan, which includes Syria joining the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The talks, to continue Friday and could be extended to Saturday, are expected to come up with a draft plan on how and when Syria will hand over its cache of chemical weapons.
President Assad Thursday said Syria agreed to surrender its chemical weapons due to the Russian proposal and not because of American threat.
“Syria is handing over chemical weapons under international control because of Russia… US threats have not affected the decision to hand over chemical arms,” Assad told Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24 news channel in an interview.
On Thursday, Syria applied to sign up to the global ban on chemical weapons, a major first step in the Russian-backed plan that would see it abandon its arsenal of poison gas to avert U.S. military strikes.
The United Nations said it had received Syria’s application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, shortly after President Bashar al-Assad promised to deliver it within days.
Before leaving for the talks, Lavrov told Russian media that there was still “a chance for peace” in Syria.
“I am sure that there is a chance for peace in Syria…We cannot let it slip away,” Lavrov said.
The plan, proposed by Russia this week, is aimed at averting any US-led military strike against the Assad regime, which the US holds responsible for killing over 1,000 civilians in an alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb on August 21.
While Russia’s Kommersant daily made public the details of the four-point plan for the first time today, an article written by Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in The New York Times, in which he spoke “directly to the American people and their political leaders” on the Syrian issue.
Putin – in the article ‘A Plea for Caution From Russia’ – warned 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.
But he warned: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.
“Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan: ‘You’re either with us or against us.'”
Putin said Russia was not aiming to protect the Syrian government but international law.
In other developments related to the issue, President Barack Obama called Tony Abbott, the newly elected prime minister of Australia, and the two discussed their grave concern about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, according to the White House.
Obama also called Kevin Rudd, the outgoing prime minister, to thank him for his “strong position” on Syria, the White House said.
U.S. officials confirmed that the CIA has begun to supply small arms to Syrian rebels, making good on the Obama administration’s pledge to provide lethal aid to the opposition forces.
A senior U.S. official told NBC News that it was unlikely U.S.-supplied weapons would “tilt the balance” in the two-year Syrian civil war because the rebels are already well-armed by Arab allies.