Syria: Chemical weapons deal moves step closer

This image taken by an Aleppo Media Centre worker shows the devastating effects of the conflict on the rebel city's buildings. Picture: AP
This image taken by an Aleppo Media Centre worker shows the devastating effects of the conflict on the rebel city's buildings. Picture: AP
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his government will start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile a month after signing the convention banning such weapons.

He also said a Russian proposal for securing Syria’s chemical weapons can work only if the US halts threats of military action against his country.

The United Nations (UN) confirmed last night it had received a document from Syria that is a first step toward joining the chemical weapons treaty.

Mr Assad’s remarks to Russia’s state Rossiya 24 news channel yesterday were his first since the Russian plan was announced on Monday as a way to avert a potential US military strike in response to the 21 August chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds near Damascus.

They came as American officials, meeting with their Russian counterparts in Geneva, were expected to demand a speedy 
accounting by Syria of their stockpiles.

In the interview, Mr Assad said: “We agreed to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision in response to Russia’s request and not because of American threats.

“In my view, the agreement will begin to take effect a month after its signing, and Syria will begin turning over to international organisations data about its chemical weapons.”

He said this was “standard procedure” and that Syria would stick to it. “This is a two-sided process and we are counting, first of all, on the US to stop conducting the policy of threats regarding Syria,” he added.

Syria’s deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, also suggested that the Russian proposal would succeed only if the US and its allies pledged not to attack Syria in the future. “We want a pledge that neither it (the US) nor anyone else will launch an aggression against Syria,” he said.

Syria’s top rebel commander, meanwhile, slammed the Russian proposal, calling for Mr Assad to be put on trial for allegedly ordering the August attack. Many rebels had held out hopes that US-led punitive strikes on Mr Assad’s forces would help tip the scales in their favour in Syria’s civil war, which has claimed over 100,000 lives so far.

General Salim Idris’ statement was broadcast on pan-Arab satellite channels hours before talks in Geneva between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

“We call upon the international community, not only to withdraw the chemical weapons that were the tool of the crime, but to hold accountable those who committed the crime in front of the International Criminal Court,” Mr Idris said.

He added that the Free Syrian Army “categorically rejects the Russian initiative” as falling short of the expectations of rebel fighters. The US, Britain, France and many other countries accuse Mr Assad’s government of being behind the attack in the suburb of Ghouta. Washington claims the attack killed 1,429 people; other estimates of the deaths are lower.

Mr Assad has denied responsibility and accuses US officials of spreading lies without providing evidence.

The Americans hope to emerge from the Geneva meetings with an outline of how some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials, as well as potential delivery systems, can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday used an opinion piece in the New York Times to assert that it is alarming military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries have become commonplace for the US.

Mr Putin said he doubted that such interventions were in the long-term interest of the US, adding millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model for democracy, but as relying solely on brute force.

In the article, Mr Putin repeated his contention that there was every reason to believe that Syrian rebels, not Mr Assad’s government, are responsible for the poison gas attack on a Damascus suburb last week.

In response, the Pentagon said Mr Putin and Russia are “isolated and alone” in asserting that Syrian rebels were likely responsible for the attack.

Children killed as Syrian warplanes bomb hospital

Syrian warplanes have bombed one of the main hospitals serving rebel-held territory in the north of the country, according to activists and video footage.

Eleven civilians, including two doctors, were killed in the strike against the hospital on Wednesday in the town of al-Bab, 19 miles north-east of Aleppo city, the opposition Aleppo Media Centre said.

Video footage posted on YouTube showed the limp body of a young child being carried out of the hospital by a man. Another boy lies on the floor, blood on his head and dust covering his body.

In the video, rubble and smashed up air-conditioning units lie on the floor. The Aleppo Media Centre said that the emergency and radiology departments were destroyed in the attack.

Meanwhile, the death toll from an alleged massacre in an Alawite village in central Syria has risen to 22, including women, children and elderly men, a rights monitoring group said.

The minority Alawite sect to which President Assad and most of Syria’s elite belong is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam whose members have increasingly been targeted by radical fighters among the Sunni Muslim-dominated opposition.

Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front shot dead 16 Alawites and six Arab Bedouins on Tuesday after storming the village of Maksar al-Hesan, east of the city of Homs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is opposed to Assad.

The British-based Observatory said the victims included seven women, three men over the age of 65, and four children under the age of 16, citing residents and medics.

Stephen Kalin