Last updated: September 10, 2013 11:38 pm

Russia’s Syria plan hits diplomatic obstacles

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow. Putin said Russia may approve a military operation in Syria if Damascus is proven to have carried out chemical weapons attacks, but such an operation can only be conducted with U.N. approval. In an interview with AP and Russia's First Channel, posted on the Kremlin web site on Wednesday, he also said Russia will fulfill its arms contracts with Syria©Reuters

President Vladimir Putin

Less than a day after Russia launched a new diplomatic initiative to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, the plan faced immediate political obstacles with the US and France disagreeing with Moscow over the terms of a new UN resolution.

Russian president Vladimir Putin criticised a draft resolution proposed by France, with US backing, that calls for “consequences” if Syria does not comply with the plan for it to hand over its stocks of chemical weapons.

The disagreements at the UN came after another day of fast-paced diplomacy which has put on hold American plans to take military action against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1400 people.

Among the biggest developments of the day, Syria said that it would end production of chemical weapons and would disclose their location to the UN, the first time it has directly acknowledged that it has such weapons.

Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said that the country would make its chemical weapons sites available to inspectors from Russia, the UN and “other countries”, according to the Associated Press. He added that Syria wanted to become a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

At the same time, the Obama administration, which had been seeking congressional approval for air strikes against Syria, said that it would take the Russian proposal to the UN. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is to travel to Geneva on Thursday to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss the proposal.

However, the political tripwires over securing a diplomatic agreement about Syria’s chemical weapons quickly became apparent when Moscow and Washington disagreed about whether to maintain the threat of military action against the Damascus regime.

Mr Kerry said on Tuesday that it was only the “credible threat of force” that had pushed Russia and Syria into the new proposal. “Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging,” he said. Reflecting the widespread scepticism in Washington about the prospects for the Russian plan, he added that “it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable” and that the UN cannot be turned into a “debating society”.

The draft text circulated at the UN by France says that the Syrian regime was responsible for the August 21 attack and calls for those responsible to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said that the resolution would also be tabled under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which would permit the use of military action if Syria ignored the plan.

Responding to the French suggestions, Mr Putin called on Tuesday for the US to drop its threat of force against Syria as a condition for Damascus placing its chemical weapons stocks under international supervision.

“Certainly, all this makes sense and can work only if we hear that the US side and everyone who supports the US in this sense drops the idea of using force,” Mr Putin said. “It is hard to make any country, be it Syria or any other country in the world, disarm unilaterally if some forcible action is being prepared against it.”

According to UN diplomats, Russia called an emergency session of the Security Council to discuss the French text, only to later cancel that request.

Mr Obama, who was due to address the nation on Tuesday in the US about the Syria crisis, asked Congress to delay voting on military action while the new diplomatic talks take place. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said it was “important we do this well, not quickly”. Members of both the House and the Senate are rewriting resolutions about military action to take into account the Russian proposal, in effect giving Syria a fixed timeframe to hand over its chemical weapons.

Amid opinion polls showing weak public backing for US intervention in Syria, there were new signs that the administration’s support in Congress was also fracturing. Among the senators who said on Tuesday they would oppose the strikes were Mitch McConnell, the leading Republican in the Senate, and Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who only recently won Mr Kerry’s old Senate seat.

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy in Paris, John Reed in Jerusalem and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

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Letter in response to this report:

A smokescreen for Assad’s brutalities / From Sir Tony Brenton

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