Syria: Russia intervenes to dissade US air strikes

SYRIA last night hastily welcomed a call from Russia to place the Assad regime’s chemical arsenals under international control, then destroy them in order to avoid a US missile strike.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary William Hague. Picture: PA
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary William Hague. Picture: PA

A statement yesterday by Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem appeared to mark the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and was seen as an attempt by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avoid a US military attack.

The move to place the chemical weapons under international control came from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who put the idea to Mr Moallem at talks in Moscow.

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“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons [in Syria] makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus,” Mr Lavrov said. The move by Russia, which is Syria’s most powerful ally, came after the idea of handing the weapons over was voiced by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr Kerry was asked by a reporter in London yesterday whether there was anything Mr Assad’s government could do or offer to stop a military strike.

He replied: “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

Speaking next to Foreign Secretary William Hague, Mr Kerry also stressed the narrow scope of the White House’s plans for a military strike by saying it would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort”.

Last night, the US State Department played down his remarks with regards Mr Assad turning over chemical weapons, saying Mr Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument.

However, the US State Department last night said it would take a “hard look” at the Russian proposal.

The Syrian president denies his forces used in an 21 August poison gas attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

The surprise series of statements from top US, Russian and Syrian diplomats followed media reports alleging that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria with President Barack Obama during the G20 summit in St Petersburg last week, had sought to negotiate a deal that would have Mr Assad hand over control of chemical weapons.

“I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership’s concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people,” Mr Moallem said through an interpreter in Moscow yesterday.

Mr Lavrov said that in addition to putting its chemical arsenal under international control, Russia was urging Syria to eventually destroy the weapons and become a full member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The Russian proposal appeared to be aimed, at least in part, at putting the US under pressure to show that its concerns about chemical weapons are genuine and it is not just using the August attack as a pretext for military intervention.

At a news conference with Mr Lavrov following their talks earlier yesterday, Mr Moallem questioned the US motives and said “diplomatic channels to resolve this issue have not been exhausted”. He did not elaborate.

Since the uprising against Mr Assad began in March 2011, his regime has a history of striking last-minute deals with the international community – including agreeing ceasefires and the presence of Arab League monitors – and then breaking its commitments.

However, adding diplomatic weight to the proposal, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday said he may ask the UN Security Council to demand that Syria move its chemical arms stocks to Syrian sites where they can be safely stored and destroyed.

“I’m considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed,” he said.

Later this week or next week, the UN team of chemical weapons experts, led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, is expected to submit a report to Ban Ki-moon about its investigation of the attack.

The move came as the White House said 14 more nations have signed on to a statement blaming Mr Assad’s government for the chemical weapons attack that killed up to 1,400 people, and calling for a strong international response.

That means the list has grown to 25 from the 11 – including the US – who initially signed on.

Among the new nations announcing support are Germany, Denmark, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Honduras, Romania, Latvia, Albania and Lithuania.

Meanwhile, President Assad warned in an interview that the US will face “repercussions” for any military strike launched in response to the chemical weapons attack. Speaking in an American TV interview recorded on Sunday, Mr Assad warned the US that his turbulent region is an “area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You should expect everything”.

He added: “You are going to pay the price if you are not wise with dealing with terrorists.”

Mr Assad also denied that his troops used chemical weapons, and he said there is no conclusive evidence about who is to blame for the attack. The US, citing intelligence reports, says the nerve agent sarin was used.

President Obama believes that strikes against Syria are needed for the US’s long-term safety and that hostile nations such as Iran and North Korea need to be reminded of US military might.

He had a difficult time last week trying to win support from the international community during his visit to the G20 summit.

On the ground: Christian town in Syria’s heartland changes hands three times in week

Syrian government forces have launched an offensive to take back control of an historic Christian town north of Damascus, activists said.

In the past week, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between president Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda.

Combatants say the intensity of fighting over the town is due to its strategic location near the road leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs.

But fighting in an area with such religious symbolism could increase anxieties among the Christian minority, who have watched sectarian violence between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alawite minority overshadow the revolt against Mr Assad’s rule.

The fighting near Maaloula, in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, threatens ancient Christian sites nestled in the hillsides that were a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which opposes Mr Assad, yesterday said that troops and militia loyal to the president re-entered Maaloula early on Saturday, but withdrew in the evening when rebels brought in reinforcements.

Retreating government forces continued to shell and clash with insurgents on the outskirts of Maaloula on Sunday and yesterday, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, though violence inside the town abated on Monday morning.

Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries, as well as the Greek Orthodox nunnery Mar Thecla, visited by many Christians and Muslims who are drawn by its reputation as a holy place where the sick would be miraculously healed.

A sizeable number of the inhabitants of Maaloula, as well as Sarkha and Jabaadeen, two nearby Sunni towns, still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

Mr Abdelrahman said 18 rebel fighters were killed and over 100 injured during Saturday’s fighting. He could not confirm the extent of casualties among government forces. Most residents had fled Maaloula when fighting erupted last Wednesday around a roadblock manned by Assad fighters.

Rebels entered the town later that day but withdrew on Thursday. The Mother Superior at Mar Thecla denied reports circulated by pro-government groups that rebels had pillaged Christian holy sites.

Among opposition forces who took control of the town on Saturday were the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, according to the SOHR.

Members of that group uploaded a video statement to YouTube on Sunday renouncing any intention to occupy Maaloula. A man in the video said they only entered the town to defend it from government attacks. He said: “Soon we will withdraw from this city not out of fear but to leave its homes to their owners. They were not our target. Our target is military.”

STEPHEN KALIN

We made an ‘extremely powerful’ case for action, says Cameron

THE Prime Minister came under renewed pressure yesterday to hold a second vote on possible military action in Syria as he appeared before MPs to update them on the G20 summit.

David Cameron said that while there was “never going to be unanimity” on the issue of Syria at last week’s conference in St Petersburg, those who supported a strong response following alleged chemical weapons attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime made an

“extremely powerful” case.

He said: “I am clear that it was right to advocate a strong response to the indiscriminate gassing of men, women and children in Syria and to make that case here in the chamber.”

But he said he understood parliament’s decision to vote against the government. He said Britain will not be part of any military effort, but will continue to press for the strongest possible response.

He added: “We will continue to shape more urgent, effective and large-scale humanitarian efforts and we will work for the peaceful political settlement that is the only solution to the Syrian conflict.”

However, Labour MPs called for him to think again about bringing back another vote on military action. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “Why, when 492 out of 577 members of this House supported or didn’t rule out the use of force in Syria, have you been so categorical in ruling it out, including refusing or even contemplating bringing the matter back to this House whatever the circumstances?”

DAVID MADDOX