MOSCOW/WASHINGTON Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he could not be 100 percent certain a U.S.-Russian plan for the destruction of Syrian chemical arms would be carried out successfully, but he saw reason to hope it would.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was essential the deal reached last Saturday be enforced and that the U.N. Security Council be willing to act on it next week, when the U.N. General Assembly holds its annual meeting in New York.
"The Security Council must be prepared to act next week," Kerry told reporters in Washington. "It is vital for the international community to stand up and speak out in the strongest possible terms about the importance of enforceable action to rid the world of Syria's chemical weapons."
French President Francois Hollande suggested on Thursday for the first time that Paris could arm Syrian rebels in a 'controlled framework," since they were now caught, he said, between the Syrian government on one side and radical Islamists on the other.
Rebels have been fighting government forces in a civil war that has claimed 100,000 lives since 2011. Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told Britain's Guardian newspaper that neither government forces nor rebels were currently capable of outright military victory.
Putin told a gathering of journalists and Russia experts in the Russian town of Valdai that he could not be 100 percent certain the plan for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons would succeed.
"But everything we have seen so far in recent days gives us confidence that this will happen," he said, adding, "I hope so."
Russia and the United States brokered the deal to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical arms stockpiles under international control to avoid possible U.S. military strikes that Washington said would punish Assad for a poison gas attack last month.
The West blames Assad's government for the August 21 attack in Ghouta, outside Damascus, which the United States says killed 1,429 people.
Assad, in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, again denied his forces were responsible for the attack. Putin also reiterated Russia's contention that the attack was staged by opponents of Assad.
But Kerry said, "We really don't have time today to pretend that anyone can have their own set of facts approaching the issue of chemical weapons in Syria.
"This fight about Syria's chemical weapons is not a game. It's real. It's important," Kerry added.
ASSAD SAYS DISPOSAL COMPLEX, EXPENSIVE
Under the U.S.-Russian deal, Assad must account for his chemical weapons stockpiles within a week and see them destroyed by the middle of next year.
Envoys from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - met on Thursday for a third straight day to discuss a draft resolution Western powers hope will make the deal legally binding.
Asked after the meeting how the talks were developing, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, "Not bad, not bad."
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant added after the three-hour meeting, "We're having constructive discussions and I hope that progress is being made."
Russia, a key ally of Assad, is unhappy with the draft's references to possible punitive measures against Syria under Article 7 of the U.N. charter, which talks about U.N. authorisation for sanctions and military force.
Assad said on Wednesday his government was willing to get rid of its chemical weapons but it would be a very complicated operation that would take about a year and cost about $1 billion.
"If the American administration is ready to pay this money and take the responsibility of bringing toxic materials to the United States, why don't they do it?" Assad told Fox News.
U.N. chemical weapons investigators confirmed on Monday the use of sarin in a long-awaited report that the United States, Britain and France said proved government forces were responsible.
Logistics as to how the deal to destroy the chemical weapons would be implemented have been murky.
Russia and the United States are the only countries with industrial-scale capacity to handle mustard, VX, sarin or cyanide-armed munitions, but the import of chemical weapons is banned under U.S. law.
Russia has been destroying its own Soviet-era chemical weapons in line with an agreement with the United States and has seven facilities for the destruction of chemical weapons, according to the Russian Munitions Agency website.
But Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that Russia had no current plans to destroy Syrian chemical weapons on its territory.
Asked whether Russia had such plans, Shoigu told Interfax news agency: "No. A decision needs to be taken for this."
"We have factories for the destruction of chemical weapons, but there is a big difference between 'ready' and 'willing'."
In a speech on Thursday, the head of NATO welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement and said individual NATO nations may agree to help implement the deal, but the 28-nation alliance itself was unlikely to play a role.
Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said it was essential for keeping momentum in the diplomatic and political process that the military option remained on the table.
The violence in Syria continued on Thursday.
Near the Turkish frontier, al Qaeda-linked fighters battled a rival Syrian rebel group for a second day after the militant Islamists stormed a nearby town and prompted Turkey to shut a border crossing.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed at least 14 members of Assad's minority Alawite sect in the central Syrian province of Homs, a Syrian opposition monitoring group said.
Speaking at a news conference in Mali, Hollande said France could provide arms to rebels, "but we will do it in a broader context with a number of countries and in a framework that can be controlled because we cannot accept that weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists that we have fought against here."
France, one of Assad's fiercest critics, has until now held back from arming the rebels despite the lifting of a European Union arms embargo in June, fearing that weapons could get into Islamists' hands.
Syria's deputy prime minister told the Guardian that the Syrian economy had lost about $100 billion, equivalent to two years of normal production, during the war.
Asked during the interview what proposals the Syrian government would bring to a broader peace conference sought by world powers, Jamil said, "An end to external intervention, a ceasefire and the launching of a peaceful political process in a way that the Syrian people can enjoy self-determination without outside intervention and in a democratic way."
(Addtional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, Stephen Kalin in Beirut, Adrian Croft in Brussels, Lou Charbonneau and Michelle Nichol at the United Nations, John Irish in Paris and Costas Pitas in London; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Peter Cooney)