WASHINGTON/AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons but U.S. President Barack Obama said it was too early to tell if the initiative would succeed and he vowed to keep military forces at the ready to strike if diplomacy fails.
In a televised address to Americans, Obama pledged to explore Russia’s proposal for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control, while expressing skepticism about the initiative.
He said he had asked the U.S. Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing military action while Washington and its allies try to pass a United Nations resolution requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up the weapons in a verifiable way.
In a sign of how hard that will be, Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier that the chemical weapons plan would only succeed if Washington and its allies rule out military action.
In what amounted to the most explicit, high-level admission by Syria that it has chemical weapons, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in a statement shown on Russian state television that Damascus was committed to the Russian initiative.
“We want to join the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons. We are ready to observe our obligations in accordance with that convention, including providing all information about these weapons,” Moualem said.
“We are ready to declare the location of the chemical weapons, stop production of the chemical weapons, and show these (production) facilities to representatives of Russia and other United Nations member states,” he said.
Obama said there had been “encouraging signs” in recent days, in part because of the U.S. threat of military action to punish Assad for what Washington says was the use of poison gas to kill 1,400 civilians in Damascus on August 21.
“It is too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said. “And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
Moscow has previously vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian government over the conflict.
The latest proposal “can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force,” Putin said in televised remarks.
Obama said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for further talks, and he himself would continue discussions with Putin.
Amid the whirlwind of diplomatic activity focused on the response to the chemical weapons attack, the civil war resumed in earnest on Tuesday with Assad’s jets again bombing rebel positions in the capital.
An initial U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted by France, would demand that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons program within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to U.N. inspectors or face possible punitive measures.
The French draft resolution, seen by Reuters, adds that the Security Council would intend “in the event of non-compliance by the Syrian authorities with the provisions of this resolution ... to adopt further necessary measures under Chapter VII” of the U.N. Charter.
Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter covers the 15-nation Security Council’s power to take steps ranging from sanctions to military interventions. It is the reference to Chapter 7, U.N. diplomats say, that has made Russia reluctant to support the initial French draft.
Russia has made clear it wanted to take the lead on any resolution. Lavrov told his French counterpart that Moscow would propose a U.N. draft declaration, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Obama said he would work with allies as well as Russia and China, both of which have veto powers on the Security Council, to craft a U.N. resolution. He gave no timetable for how long he would wait for such talks to play out.
“Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” Obama said.
The president also reiterated his arguments for why it would be in the national security interests of the United States to punish Syria for using chemical weapons if diplomacy fails.
“If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” Obama said. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.”
The United States and France had been poised to launch missile strikes to punish Assad’s forces, which they blame for the chemical weapons attack. Syria denies it was responsible and, with the backing of Moscow, blames rebels for staging the attacks to provoke U.S. intervention.
The White House said Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande had agreed in a telephone call on their preference for a diplomatic solution, but that they should continue to prepare for “a full range of responses.”
While the prospects of a deal remain uncertain, the proposal could provide a way for Obama to avoid ordering military strikes. Opinion polls show most Americans are opposed to military intervention in Syria, weary after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether international inspectors can neutralize chemical weapons dumps while war rages in Syria remains open to question.
Western states believe Syria has a vast undeclared chemical arsenal. Sending inspectors to destroy it would be hard even in peace and extraordinarily complicated in the midst of a civil war.
The two main precedents are ominous: U.N. inspectors dismantled the chemical arsenal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s but left enough doubt to provide the basis for a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rehabilitated by the West after agreeing to give up his banned weapons, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011.
The Syrian war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. It threatens to spread violence across the Middle East, with countries endorsing the sectarian divisions that brought civil war to Lebanon and Iraq.
The wavering from the West dealt an unquestionable blow to the Syrian opposition, which had thought it had finally secured military intervention after pleading for two and a half years for help from Western leaders who vocally opposed Assad.
The rebel Syrian National Coalition decried a “political maneuver which will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause more death and destruction to the people of Syria.”
Assad’s warplanes bombed rebellious districts inside the Damascus city limits on Tuesday for the first time since the poison gas attacks. Rebels said the strikes demonstrated that the government had concluded the West had lost its nerve.
“By sending the planes back, the regime is sending the message that it no longer feels international pressure,” activist Wasim al-Ahmad said from Mouadamiya, one of the districts of the capital hit by the chemical attack.
The Russian proposal “is a cheap trick to buy time for the regime to kill more and more people,” said Sami, a member of the local opposition coordinating committee in the Damascus suburb of Erbin, also hit by last month’s poison gas attack.
Troops and pro-Assad militiamen tried to seize the northern district of Barzeh and the eastern suburb of Deir Salman near Damascus airport, working-class Sunni Muslim areas where opposition activists and residents reported street fighting.
Fighter jets bombed Barzeh three times and pro-Assad militia backed by army tank fire made a push into the area. Air raids were also reported on the Western outskirts near Mouadamiya.
However, Damascenes in pro-Assad areas were grateful for a reprieve from Western strikes: “Russia is the voice of reason. They know that if a strike went ahead against Syria, then World War Three - even Armageddon - would befall Europe and America,” said Salwa, a Shi’ite Muslim in the affluent Malki district.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Mark Felsenthal, Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Richard Cowan, Paul Eckert and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Jim Loney and Christopher Wilson