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Middle east

Is a US-Russia agreement on Syria possible?

© Photo: AFP (file photo)

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-09-11

The US has given backing to Russia’s proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons and prevent a military intervention, but an agreement between the two countries on how to proceed next still appears a long way off.

Russia’s proposal for Damascus to give up its chemical weapons under supervision from the international community has, seemingly for the first time, given Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama a degree of common ground over Syria.

Keen to avoid an uphill battle to persuade Congress and the American public to back a strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime, Obama Tuesday offered qualified support for the Russian plan.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," he said in an address from the White House.

"But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies."

However, despite developing the apparent common goal of a non-military solution to the Syria issue, an agreement on how exactly Russia’s proposal will be carried out and enforced still appears a long way off.

The US and its allies Great Britain and France would like to see a demand for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons go through a UN Security Council resolution, keeping the threat of force in reserve if Assad fails to fully comply.

Russia rejects French draft resolution

Tuesday saw France put a draft resolution before the UN, only for it to be immediately rejected by Russia.

The resolution put forward by Paris demanded that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons program within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to inspection by the UN.

But it also left the door open for a possible military response in the event of non-compliance by Syria.

It is this, along with a section of the draft that makes clear the Security Council considers Assad’s government responsible for the alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus on August 21, which Russia objects to.

Whether Russia would support any UN Security Council resolution on Syria remains doubtful, with the country blocking every proposal put before the council since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war two years ago.

But if it does consent to a resolution, it would only be one where the threat of military force against Syria is completely removed.

Speaking on Russian television Tuesday, Putin said the proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical arms would only work if the United States withdraws its threat to take punitive action.

"It all makes sense and can work if the US side and all those who support it renounce the use of force," said the Russian president.

"It is difficult to constrain Syria or another country to disarm unilaterally while military action against that country is being prepared."

US unwilling to proceed without UN backing

Russia would prefer to proceed without a UN resolution at all, instead pressing for a far less binding presidential statement from the United Nations that would enshrine the principles of the plan without making them directly enforceable.

But, although it had previously made it clear that it was willing to act without UN backing when it was pressing for military strikes, the US has suggested it is unwilling to move forward with Russia’s disarmament proposal without a UN resolution.

“We need a full resolution from the Security Council in order to have the confidence that this has the force that it ought to have," US Secretary of State Kerry insisted Tuesday.

"Common sense tells us that we don't want to buy into something that isn't going to get the job done. So this has to be transparent, accountable, fully implementable and a clearly verifiable process and we're going to have to work at how that's going to be achieved.”

Kerry is due to meet with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in key diplomatic talks in Geneva Thursday, which could determine if any agreement between the US and Russia over Syria is possible.

But with the two countries both possessing UN Security Council vetoes and therefore able to block each others’ proposals ad infinitum - coupled with their already strained diplomatic relations resulting from Russia's decision to give temporary asylum to former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year -  it could still be some time until their new common goal results in any concrete action.

Date created : 2013-09-11

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