Monday, September 09, 2013

Russia Calls for Syria to Destroy Chemical Weapons.....Assad Threatens Repercussions

Sergei Lavrov called for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons

Russia has asked Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed, in an attempt to avoid US military strikes. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the offer was made during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, who welcomed the initiative.

The US said it was sceptical, but would have a "hard look" at the plan. The US accuses Damascus of war crimes, allegations denied by the regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Europe to garner support for the military action, has once again warned that taking no action is riskier than launching strikes.

Damascus knows the struggle for the moment is to sway American public opinion. With that in mind, President Assad, in his interview with CBS, and statements from other Syrian officials, have stressed at least three ways in which a US military strike would backfire.  There is the unspecific warning, if not outright threat, of direct reprisals by Syria, and indirect action by its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. There is the warning that American action would strengthen rebel factions linked to al-Qaeda, and could even enable them to seize power if the strike were damaging enough. And there is the threat, echoed by Moscow, that any such attack would scupper already-dim chances of a political settlement through peace talks in Geneva.

In reality, much depends on what exactly the Americans intend to do. If their strike is, as Mr Kerry said, "incredibly small", the repercussions might be very limited. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq might fire off some mortars at the enormous US embassy compound in Baghdad, for example. But more serious actions, such as Hezbollah striking at Israel, are unlikely unless the US launches a very major operation indeed.

When asked at a news conference whether there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid military action, Mr Kerry replied that he could hand over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week. US officials subsequently clarified that Mr Kerry was making a "rhetorical argument" rather than a serious offer.

However, Mr Lavrov later said he had urged Mr Muallem during talks in Moscow to "not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction". He said he had also told Mr Muallem that Syria should then fully join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Mr Muallem told reporters through an interpreter that Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. He praised Russia for "attempting to prevent American aggression against our people".

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov spoke on the phone after the Russian proposal was put forward, but US officials sounded a cautious note over the plan. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US government would study the proposal, but had scepticism over the credibility of the Assad regime.
"In an interview earlier, Assad refused to even acknowledge that he has chemical weapons. Of course, the whole world knows he does," said Mr Carney. He promised that the US would continue to push for strikes because the credible threat of military action was vital in putting pressure on the Assad regime.

The Russians have been the main international ally of Mr Assad's regime throughout Syria's two-and-a-half-year civil war. Russia has blocked three resolutions against Syria in the UN Security Council, and has dismissed evidence linking Mr Assad's forces to a chemical attack in Damascus on 21 August. The US says Syrian government forces used poison gas to kill 1,429 people in the attack.

Mr Assad's government blames the attack on rebels fighting to overthrow him, in a conflict that the UN says has claimed some 100,000 lives. The UN sent weapons experts into Damascus to investigate the attack. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that if the experts concluded chemicals had been used, he would consider asking the Security Council to set up a zone in Syria where the weapons could be destroyed.

Meanwhile, the Syrian leader gave an interview to US network PBS in which he warned the US against intervention, saying the Middle East was "on the brink of explosion".
 "You're going to pay the price if you're not wise with dealing with terrorists. There are going to be repercussions," he said. "You should expect everything. The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, different factions, different ideologies. You have everything in this decision now."

Mr Assad did not explain whether his comment was a threat that Syrian-backed groups such as Hezbollah would launch retaliation, or a warning that strikes would bolster al-Qaeda-linked groups.
He calls the rebels "terrorists" and has often insisted that they are linked to al-Qaeda. He also denied using chemical weapons saying there was "no evidence" to hold his government responsible for the August 21 attack.

 President  Obama has cleared his schedule this week to focus all his attention on building support for the Syrian intervention. Many US politicians and members of the public remain concerned that military action could draw the nation into a prolonged war and spark broader hostilities in the region.

Syria's chemical weapons

  • CIA believes Syria's chemical weapons can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
  • Syria is believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, and also tried to develop more toxic nerve agents such as VX gas
  • Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

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