US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Geneva yesterday to hear Russia’s plans to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and avert US-led military strikes, an initiative that has transformed diplomacy in the two-and-a-half year old civil war.
Kerry would insist any deal must force Syria to take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its chemical arsenal, senior US officials said ahead of Kerry’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Among the first steps Washington wants, one US official said, is for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make a complete, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles quickly as a prelude to allowing them to be inspected and neutralized.
This week’s eleventh-hour Russian initiative interrupted a Western march to war, persuading US President Barack Obama to put on hold a plan for military strikes to punish al-Assad for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians on Aug. 21.
Syria, which denies it was behind that attack, has agreed to Moscow’s proposal that it give up its chemical weapons stocks, averting what would have been the first direct Western intervention in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
A version of the Russian plan leaked to the newspaper Kommersant described four stages: Syria would join the world body that enforces a ban on chemical weapons, declare its production and storage sites, invite inspectors and then decide with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.
In the past Syria had not confirmed that it held chemical weapons. It was not a party to treaties that banned their possession and required disclosure, although it was bound by the Geneva Conventions that prohibit their use in warfare.
While the diplomats gathered in Switzerland, civil war ground on relentlessly in Syria itself. Activists said warplanes bombed one of the main hospitals serving rebel-held territory in the north of the country, killing at least 11 civilians, including two doctors.
Video footage showed the limp body of a child being carried out of the hospital by a man. Another boy lay on the floor, blood on his head and dust covering his body.
Rebels say the US climb-down from strikes — and the shift in emphasis in Western diplomacy from demanding al-Assad’s removal from power to the narrower aim of forcing him to relinquish chemical weapons — emboldened his forces to take the offensive.
Al-Assad’s opponents are also accused of atrocities. An anti-al-Assad monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, yesterday said that Sunni Muslim Islamist rebels had killed 22 members of al-Assad’s Alawite minority sect in a massacre after storming a village east of the city of Homs.
The sudden pull-back from the brink is a blow for rebels who have listened to Obama and other Western leaders declare in strong terms for two years that al-Assad must be removed from power, while wavering over whether to use force to push him out.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, one of the main opponents of al-Assad within the region, dismissed the Russian plan.
“The [al-]Assad regime has not lived up to any of its pledges. It has won more time for new massacres and continues to do so,” he said. “We are doubtful that the promises regarding chemical weapons will be met.”
The rebels are armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are expected to continue to send weapons and funds although the odds of victory are longer without Western action.