MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday it may be time to consider efforts to force foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend an international peace conference instead of just urging them to do so.
Lavrov also accused European countries of trying to reinterpret the agreement he reached with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend under which Syria is to give up its chemical weapons arsenal and avoid U.S. strikes.
Lavrov’s remarks suggested Russia will resist any rush to threaten military intervention if Assad fails to implement the deal and that it will blame the rebels - and the West - if the agreement does not lead to a wider push to end Syria’s conflict.
Lavrov and Kerry announced in May that their nations would seek to bring Syrian government and opposition representatives together at an international conference, but no date has been set and Moscow says rebel recalcitrance is the main hurdle.
“It is necessary to first convince the opposition (to attend). But maybe it’s time to start using a different verb - to force the opposition to take part in the conference,” Lavrov said after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.
Lavrov has repeatedly urged Western nations to work harder to get Assad’s opponents to attend the conference “without preconditions” - a reference to their calls for Assad’s exit from power. He did not say how they might be forced to attend.
Syria’s opposition has struggled to unify its fractious forces, and divisions among rebels seeking to oust Assad have added to Western reluctance to step in directly or provide arms.
Russia has been the Syrian government’s most powerful backer during the conflict, using its veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member three times - with China - to block Western-backed resolutions meant to mount pressure on Assad.
Lavrov took issue with what he said were calls from Europe for swift passage of a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which can include the use of force, to back the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical arms, saying they showed a “lack of understanding” of the terms.
“Our (European) partners want to again unilaterally review what we’ve agreed on with the Americans. That’s not how you do business, and I‘m sure that despite these statements that are coming from European capitals, the Americans will, as proper negotiators, strictly stick to what has been agreed on.”
Russia and the United States struck a deal on Saturday to remove and destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal after he accepted Moscow’s proposal that it hand over the weapons to international control in a bid to avert a potential U.S. military strike.
After talks in Paris on Monday, French President Francois Hollande’s office said the three Western permanent members on the Security Council - the United States, Britain and France - agreed to seek a strong resolution that sets binding deadlines for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Lavrov said that under the deal with the United States, any resort to force or other measures under Chapter VII would come not in an initial resolution backing the agreement but in a second resolution that could be passed if Syria uses chemical weapons or otherwise violates its obligations.
“In such cases, as agreed with our U.S. colleagues ... the U.N. Security Council may then adopt a new resolution which could be based on Chapter VII,” Lavrov said, but he emphasized that such a resolution might call for measures short of the use of force.
“No one can say what the content of this (resolution) would be,” he said.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mike Collett-White