Syria said it would cease production of chemical weapons and disclose the locations of its stockpiles to the United Nations, Russia and others, as Damascus seized on a possible diplomatic route to avert international military action.
The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem represented the first direct admission by the Syrian government that it possesses chemical weapons. Mr. Moallem said Syria aimed to sign the international convention banning chemical weapons.
The offer came as Syria’s ally Russia clashed with France over a possible U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at forcing Syria to hand over its stockpiles, following what the U.S. and France said was the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21.
Syria has denied a role in the attack, blaming opposition rebels in the country’s 2½-year old civil war.
President Barack Obama has mounted a campaign at home and abroad for support for military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the attacks.
That campaign, and U.S. congressional debate over supporting military action, have been sidetracked by a Russian proposal that led to Syria’s unexpected offer.
Mr. Obama has agreed to explore the possibility of a Syrian chemical-weapons handover, the White House said, even as he continued to seek support for a U.S. military strike from a reluctant Congress.
Mr. Obama traveled to the Capitol to meet with Senate Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday, ahead of a prime-time speech to make his case to the American public. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel again testified on Capitol Hill to press the case for military action.
Secretary of State John Kerrywarned Tuesday that it would be “exceedingly difficult” for Syria to meet the international community’s conditions for giving up its chemical weapons and avoiding a threatened U.S. military strike.
But a new international debate also took shape over a possible U.N. resolution.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France’s proposal would invoke Chapter 7, a clause that allows member states to use all possible means, including military action, to enforce a U.N. resolution.
Mr. Fabius said the resolution would call for consequences if the regime of Mr. Assad fails to comply with the proposed program, adding that “all options remain on the table.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry rejected the French proposal because of the Chapter 7 reference, as well as the suggestion that the resolution would blame the Syrian government for deploying chemical weapons.
The discussions, until late Tuesday, involved only an implicit acknowledgment that Mr. Assad had chemical weapons, which are banned under an international treaty that Damascus hasn’t signed.
“We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for the inspection of representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations,” Mr. Moallem said, reading a statement to a pro-regime Lebanese TV station, al-Mayadeen. “We are ready to cooperate fully in implementing this [Russian] initiative, particularly given that we want to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also clarified the need for Syria to stockpile chemical weapons.
“It’s well known that Syria has a certain arsenal of chemical weapons and the Syrians always viewed that as an alternative [response] to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday.
The developments came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pivoting off comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, called on Syria to agree to put chemical-weapons stores under international control for subsequent destruction and to sign on to the international convention banning chemical weapons. Syria said it would agree to the Russian proposal, without offering details.
International efforts to address the crisis in Syria have shifted back to diplomacy after weeks of saber-rattling led by the U.S. and France that followed the Aug. 21 chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus. The U.S. blamed the Assad regime for the attack, saying that it killed more than 1,400 people.
Russia plans to propose a draft declaration of the chairman of the Security Council that would welcome the initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and call on the U.N. and other agencies to support that work, the Russian foreign ministry said.
Together with the U.S., France has threatened in recent weeks to use force in Syria, saying military strikes would help deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against civilians and rebel groups.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Tuesday that the U.K. would join the U.S. and France in presenting a resolution, and emphasized the urgency of Syrian compliance.
“We need to know that there is a proper timetable,” he said. “We need to know that there will be a proper process for doing it, and crucially there would have to be consequences if it wasn’t done,” he told lawmakers.
A representative of the Syrian opposition urged the U.S. and France to forge ahead with the planned strikes, describing Moscow’s proposal as a delay tactic.
“We see this as an attempt to save the Assad regime,” Monzer Makhous, representative in France of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. Mr. Makhous said France’s push for a tough resolution aimed to deprive the Assad regime of “room for maneuver.”
In Moscow, Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said Russia’s initiative was aimed at “knocking the legs out from under American aggression,” according to Interfax.
France’s proposal for dismantling the chemical arsenal was expected to face resistance from Moscow, a longtime sponsor of the Assad regime. European diplomats had secretly proposed a similar resolution—invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter—to Moscow weeks ago, according to a French official.
Moscow rejected that proposal, the official said, because Chapter 7 makes the resolution binding, having been used in other conflicts to justify military intervention.
The French official said Paris considered Chapter 7 a nonnegotiable part of the draft resolution.
Paris is also seeking a resolution that holds any members of the Assad regime accountable under international law for any alleged involvement in the chemical attacks. The French draft resolution will call for any cases to be referred to the International Criminal Court. That provision is also likely to draw scrutiny from Moscow.
Russia, which wields veto power on the Security Council, has blocked previous resolutions aimed at punishing the Assad regime.
Russian officials said Tuesday that the idea of placing the Assad regime’s chemical arsenal under international control was “not quite a Russian initiative,” but stemmed from contacts with U.S. diplomats.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said he hoped to present an “effective, clear, concrete” plan to the West.
“For this purpose, contacts with the Syrian side are being conducted literally at this minute,” Mr. Lavrov said.
He said the monitoring program would involve the U.N. Secretary General, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as members of the Security Council, which includes the U.S.
China, which has previously joined Russia in blocking U.N. resolutions against the Assad regime, welcomed Russia’s initiative.
“As long as the suggestion will ease tensions in Syria and solves the Syrian issue and safeguards peace in the region, the international community should give positive consideration to it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the proposal at a regular press briefing.