PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Thursday it would be clear next week whether a Russian proposal to control Syria’s chemical weapons was credible, but warned of a risk of being fooled if Western allies do not stick to their demands.
France, one of Assad’s fiercest critics, proposed a tough U.N. resolution on Tuesday a day after a surprise proposal by Russia that its Syrian ally hand over its chemical arms stocks, a move that could avert possible U.S.-led military strikes.
“I think (next week) we will have a real idea if, whatever the initial intentions were, it (the chemical weapons) can be controlled or not,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
“We are clear the commitments from Syria must be quick, credible and verifiable,” he told RTL radio.
“We have to be firm, but seize the openings for a solution if they exist, but we shouldn’t be fools. We have to accept people’s words, but not to be fooled by those words.” He did not elaborate on what he meant by being “fooled”.
Some Western diplomats and analysts believe Moscow’s plan is far-fetched, noting it would be difficult to verify whether Damascus had yielded all its chemical arms since there is no known reliable inventory of the stockpile or its whereabouts.
Skeptics also note that for Assad, such a deal could spare him from U.S.-led air strikes, one of the few scenarios under which he might be seriously weakened against rebels in the two-and-a-half-year-old uprising against his rule.
Moreover chemical arms have been used only occasionally in Syria’s war and caused only a small fraction of its casualties, so removing them may do little to defuse the conflict, barring any knock-on diplomacy towards a ceasefire and peace deal.
While France has declared itself ready to help in any air strikes, it has increasingly been left in limbo and sidelined since the United States decided to seek congressional approval before responding to an August 21 chemical arms attack in Syria.
Paris has also not been invited to Geneva where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were to meet to try to agree on a practical strategy to eliminate the chemical arsenal.
U.S. officials said Washington would insist that Syria take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its vast chemical arsenal as Kerry arrived in Geneva.
Fabius, who spoke to Kerry on Wednesday, reiterated that Paris wanted a U.N. resolution that was legally binding, with “punishment” for those who carried out the August 21 attack.
“It’s our firm position that has paved the way to finding a diplomatic solution, but weakness would shut that door,” he said. “In our resolution, there has to be punishment.”
Fabius also said that U.N. inspectors who investigated the poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians would “probably” publish a report on Monday, although French officials said they had not been given any specific indication by the United Nations, and it might come out earlier.
Diplomats have said the U.N. report is unlikely to pin blame on either side in the conflict pitting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebel forces, but that it will contain enough detail to suggest which party was responsible.
“The inspectors’ report will probably be Monday. I haven’t seen it, but it will say there was a chemical massacre. There will certainly be indications,” said Fabius.
He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had stuck to a long-held position by saying that Syrian rebels had perpetrated the chemical attack - something they flatly deny.
“It is absolutely not the reality. It is the version that my colleague Mr Lavrov has been pushing without any credibility,” said Fabius.
Depending on its wording, the U.N. report could become a bargaining chip in talks between Moscow and the West about placing the weapons under international control.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Mark Heinrich