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Question of enforcement casts cloud on Syria plan

Wednesday - 9/11/2013, 2:38am  ET

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks to the media in Moscow, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Syria's foreign minister said his country welcomes Russia's proposal for it to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert U.S. strikes. An international human rights group said Tuesday that evidence “strongly suggests” Syrian government forces fired rockets with warheads containing a nerve agent — most likely sarin — into a Damascus suburb in August, killing hundreds of people. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

LORI HINNANT
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- A Russian plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to avert Western missile strikes bogged down Tuesday when Moscow rejected U.S. and French demands for a binding U.N. resolution with "very severe consequences" for non-compliance.

The surprise Russian proposal, which Syria and the United States both accepted, would put President Bashar Assad's regime's chemical stockpile under international control before its eventual dismantling. The initiative -- also cautiously endorsed by Britain and France -- appeared to offer a way out of a crisis that raised the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.

But the plan ran aground as the world powers haggled over the crucial element of how to enforce it. Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called "a trap," Paris and Washington are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify Syria's disarmament. Russia, a close Assad ally and the regime's chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France's proposal as unacceptable.

The dizzying diplomatic maneuvering threatened what had been growing momentum toward a plan that would allow President Barack Obama to back away from military action. Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the United States, even as Obama seeks Congress' backing for action -- and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.

In a nationally televised speech Tuesday night, Obama told war-weary Americans that diplomacy suddenly holds "the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons" in Syria without use of force, but he declared that the U.S. military will "be ready to respond" against Assad if other measures fail.

For now, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria. Obama pledged that any military action would be limited and wouldn't involve deploying ground combat troops or waging a prolonged air campaign against Syria.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said early Tuesday during a trip to Moscow that Damascus "agreed to the Russian initiative as it should thwart the U.S. aggression against our country."

Before departing Moscow in the evening, al-Moallem told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV that Syria would place its chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, other unspecified countries and the United Nations. Syria will also declare the chemical arsenal it long denied having, stop producing such weapons and sign conventions against them.

Mindful that Damascus could only be seeking to avoid Western military strikes, France said it would put forward a draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, making it enforceable with military action.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons program to inspection, place it under international control, and ultimately dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry "very serious consequences." The resolution would condemn the Aug. 21 attack and bring those responsible to justice, he said.

"We do not want this to be used as a diversion," Fabius said. "It is by accepting these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday."

Obama threw his support behind the French resolution and discussed the matter with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. At the same time, he continued to push his original plan to win congressional authorization for U.S. airstrikes against Assad's regime in case the diplomatic efforts fail.

The prospect of a deal that could be enforced militarily met swift opposition from Russia, which has provided economic, military and diplomatic support to Assad throughout the 2½-year conflict.

President Vladimir Putin said the plan can only work if "the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his French counterpart that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, the U.N. resolution authorizing force, his ministry said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in turn, said the U.S. rejects a Russian suggestion that the U.N. endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the Security Council president.

The U.S. has to have a full resolution -- one that entails "consequences if games are played and somebody tries to undermine this," he said.

Obama is sending Kerry to Geneva to discuss the issue with Russia's foreign minister, a State Department official said. The two are to meet Thursday. The official was not authorized to discuss the mission publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

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