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U.S. and France run into Russian resistance on Syria plan

September 10, 2013|By Paul Richter
  • French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks at a news conference in Paris on the situation in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks at a news conference in Paris… (Yoan Valat / European Pressphoto…)

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration and its French allies quickly ran into conflict with Russia on Tuesday they began working out details of a proposal to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.

One day after the White House tentatively embraced the Russian proposal as a way of averting a U.S. military strike, Russia insisted that as part of any deal, the United States needed to forswear any threat to use force.

Moscow also insisted that the United Nations Security Council should not be asked to implement the program under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force, and proposed instead use of a much weaker tool, a so-called presidential statement.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who plans to meet Thursday in Geneva with his Russian counterpart to discuss the Syrian crisis, said that “we need a full resolution in the Security Council in order to have the confidence that this has the force that it ought to have.”

The plan “has to have consequences if games are played, or if somebody tries to undermine this,” Kerry said during a Google+ Hangout.

Administration officials have been eager to explore the Russian plan, which could enable them to avoid a political crisis over mounting resistance in Congress to military action. But the administration’s need for a diplomatic solution is giving Moscow considerable leverage on the terms of the deal.

If the Russian proposal is rejected, the administration could be forced to resume its effort to win congressional authorization for a strike, having lost momentum.

Many Middle Eastern officials and U.S. lawmakers are already skeptical of the proposal, fearing Russia and Syria may be aiming for a drawn-out process that averts a strike but never forces Syrian President Bashar Assad to surrender his chemical weapons. Previously, such efforts have taken years, sometimes without eliminating all weapons sites.

After France proposed a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the idea was “unacceptable.” The Russians proposed instead that the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the organization that oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention should carry out the plan.

Russian officials have been deeply resistant to even weak U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning the Syrian civil war, fearing that they could open the way to an international military force. They contend that is what happened two years ago, when a U.S.-led group mounted the military operation that ousted Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a television appearance in Moscow late Tuesday that the plan can work only “if we hear that the American side and those who support the United States in this sense rule out the use of force,” according to the RT news organization.

Philippe Lalliot, a spokesman for French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that it was “astonishing” that the Russians had rejected a French proposal “they haven’t yet seen.”

He said France could adjust its proposal “as long as the main principles and objectives are preserved.”

Kerry said U.S. officials have stressed to the Russians that “this must be done quickly.”

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Special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.

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