Russia’s Proposal: US Must Pledge Not to Use Force, and Assad Regime Can’t Be Blamed for Chemical Attack

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2013 | 7:58 PM EDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

( – Pushing his proposal to avert military strikes against his ally in Damascus by having it surrender its chemical weapons stocks, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday the initiative would only be feasible if the U.S. pledges not to use force.

The plan will only work, he said in a statement released on the Kremlin website, “if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.”

“You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.”

Putin’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said a French-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons was unacceptable because it blamed President Bashar Assad’s regime for a major chemical attack on August 21.

The Russian plan – based on an off-the-cuff remark Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry quickly seized upon by Putin and Assad’s government – unexpectedly shifted the debate over what had been seen as imminent U.S. military action in response to the deadly Aug. 21 attack.

President Obama, who is to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday evening, has cautiously welcomed the initiative.

Media commentary around the world reacting to the development focused on several themes:

--the proposal is likely a stalling tactic by Syria and Russia, designed to drag out negotiations over weeks or months and further weaken Obama’s chances of winning congressional or public approval for a military strike;

--the plan, even if based on a Kerry gaffe, offers a face-saving way for Obama to climb down from a position for which he was having great difficulty winning congressional, public or broad international support, sparing him humiliation and a military entanglement he doesn’t relish;

--the initiative could do wonders for Putin’s image, shifting it from that of a stubborn and increasingly isolated hardliner determined to stand by a brutal regime whatever its actions, to one of a mediator and statesman.

Whatever the case, Moscow on Tuesday made it clear it has no plan to soften its opposition to any Security Council resolution that condemns the Assad regime or blames it for the chemical attack. That stance has already seen Russia (and China) veto three resolutions on Syria since the civil war began.

‘Punishment and deterrence’

The text proposed by France condemns the Aug. 21 attack and blames the regime for carrying it out. It calls for Syria to declare its chemical weapons stockpiles, place them under international supervision, and allow them to be dismantled.

Further, it puts it place a mechanism for inspecting and monitoring Syria’s chemical weapons obligations, and provides for “extremely serious consequences” in the event of any violation.

Finally, it calls for those responsible for using the deadly agent on Aug. 21 to face trial in the International Criminal Court.

France also wants the resolution to invoke chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday. Chapter seven resolutions to restore or maintain “international peace and security” can include the use of sanctions or armed force, and are binding on all members.

“It’s on the acceptance of these specific conditions that we’ll judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday,” Fabius told a press conference.

“The Syrian people have suffered too much; we won’t let ourselves be dragged into delaying tactics, so we must have rapid results,” he said.

“France wants to act in good faith to ensure that a firm, specific and verifiable response to the Syrian chemical threat can finally be found, with the two objectives we’ve had from the outset – punishment and deterrence – and still the same method: well-considered firmness.”

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the resolution by phone with Fabius, and told him that “blaming the Syrian authorities for the possible use of chemical weapons is inadmissible.”

Moscow also opposes invoking chapter seven of the U.N. Charter. In fact, it wants no resolution at all, favoring instead a non-binding statement read out by the Security Council’s rotating presidency, a post held by Australia this month.

During an online roundtable, Kerry said that would not be acceptable. The U.S., he said, would expect “a full resolution from the Security Council, in order to have confidence that this has the force that it has to have.”

Lavrov told reporters separately that the Russian government was “preparing a workable, clear, concrete plan” for putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control, which would be presented “in the near future.”

How long that will take was not said, but in testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday Kerry stressed that time was short.

“We have made it clear to them – I have in several conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov – that this cannot be a process of delay, this cannot be a process of avoidance,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

“We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long. President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.”

Kerry asserted that the threat of U.S. military action brought Assad to the current position, and urged Congress to approve authorization of military force to keep the pressure on.

“A lot of people say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Well, it’s the credible threat of force that has been on the table for these last weeks that has, for the first time, brought this regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal,” he said.

“And it is the threat of this force and our determination to hold Assad accountable that has motivated others to even talk about a real and credible international action that might have an impact.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow