GENEVA: President Bashar al-Assad confirmed for the first time on Thursday that Syria plans to give up its chemical weapons and demanded that the US drop threats of military action against his regime in return.
“When we see that the US truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade, as well as stops arms supplies to terrorists then we can believe that we can follow through with the necessary processes,” Assad said in an interview on Russian television. He demanded Washington dispense with the ‘politics of threats’.
“Syria is handing over chemical weapons under international control because of Russia,” he said. “US threats have not affected the decision.”
In a concrete move towards disarmament, Syria on Thursday filed documents at the UN seeking to join the international convention banning chemical weapons.
Despite Assad’s demand, US President Barack Obama said he was hopeful US-Russia talks due to start in Geneva could produce a workable weapons transfer plan that will avert the need for military action.
Backed by a large team of experts, US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
“I am hopeful that the discussions that Secretary Kerry has with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well as some of the other players in this can yield a concrete result,” Obama said.
Ahead of the talks, a senior US official said Washington was urging Syria to “declare their entire stockpile quickly.”
The official said Washington would ask for specific action from Damascus to test the regime’s sincerity and discuss ‘different modalities’ of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons and production facilities.
“It’s doable, but difficult,” the official said.
Lavrov voiced optimism ahead of the talks, saying during a visit to Kazakhstan: “I am sure that there is a chance for peace in Syria… We cannot let it slip away.”
The US and its main backer of military strikes on Syria, France, have warned they will not allow the chemical weapons plan to become a delaying tactic in Syria’s brutal war, saying the threat of military force remains on the table.
“All of this should, if everyone is aware of their responsibilities, allow for the end of chemical weapons in Syria and for us to find a political solution, but France is keeping up pressure,” President Francois Hollande told journalists.
Revealing details of the Russian proposal for the first time Thursday, daily Kommersant said Moscow had given Washington a four-step plan for the weapons handover.
Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, Kommersant said the plan would see Damascus join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.
Syria’s opposition has denounced the plan, warning it will only lead to more deaths in a conflict that has already killed more than 110,000 people since March 2011.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Selim Idriss, said in a video posted on YouTube that the rebels categorically rejected the Russian initiative.
And the Syrian National Coalition opposition group said the plan is a ‘political manoeuvre aimed at buying time’ for Assad and would be a ‘green light’ to other regimes to use chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said on Thursday that destroying Syria’s chemical weapons would be ‘immensely difficult’ and may do little to end the conflict there.
“There has never been a situation where the international community has attempted to secure, seize and destroy weapons of mass destruction during an ongoing conflict,” IISS proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick told a news conference.