Smoke rises from buildings following an air strike in Sarakeb, Idlib province, Syria. Key international players were moving on two diplomatic fronts Wednesday to try to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, and a fresh effort appeared to be underway to get the government and opposition to peace talks. (AP)
UNITED NATIONS — Key international players were moving on two diplomatic fronts Wednesday to try to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, and a fresh effort appeared to be underway to get the government and opposition to peace talks.
The five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, who have been deeply divided over Syria, met late Wednesday to discuss what to include in a new resolution requiring that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile be secured and dismantled. They later left Russia's U.N. mission without commenting.
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were heading to Geneva with teams of experts for broader-ranging talks Thursday about the nuts and bolts of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control and destroying them, diplomats said.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was also heading to Geneva to be available to meet Kerry and Lavrov, whose efforts to start peace talks to end the 2 1/2-year Syrian conflict have been stymied by a government offensive and a deadly suspected poison gas attack on Aug. 21.
The diplomatic flurry follows the threat of U.S. strikes against President Bashar Assad's regime and a surprise offer from Kerry that Syria could avert U.S. military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week. Russia, Syria's most important ally, and Assad's government quickly agreed on the broad proposal, but details still need to be worked out.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for caution in dealing with Syria, saying that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria and unleash a wave of terrorism.
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because contacts have been private, said Thursday's meeting between Kerry and Lavrov will be an exploratory session to gauge whether they can embark on "the herculean task" of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons while the country is at war.
While serious differences have already emerged — especially on whether a U.N. resolution should be militarily enforceable as the U.S. and its Western allies are demanding — the diplomatic moves represent the first major effort in more than a year to try to get supporters of the Syrian government and opposition on the same page.
Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the conflict, which has left the U.N.'s most powerful body paralyzed as the war escalates and the death toll surpasses 100,000. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week called the council's paralysis embarrassing.
"What the secretary-general has been pressing for is the Security Council to come to a united decision," U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Wednesday. "It's crucially important at this late stage of the war that they come together and take some action that can prevent both the problems regarding the use of chemical weapons and the wider problem of solving this conflict."
The White House said Wednesday it is not putting a timeline on a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria, though Press Secretary Jay Carney said putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control, "obviously will take some time."
France has proposed a draft resolution that demands Syria's chemical weapons be put under international control and dismantled. It also condemns the Aug. 21 chemical attack the Obama administration says killed 1,400 people and calls for the perpetrators to be sent to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Submitted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which makes it enforceable militarily, it warns of "very serious consequences" if Syria does not comply.
Lavrov immediately rejected any resolution under Chapter 7 and proposed a weaker presidential statement instead, a move rejected by the U.S., Britain and France.
A French official close to President Francois Hollande said Russia objected not only to making the resolution militarily enforceable, but also to blaming the alleged chemical attack on the Syrian government and demanding that those responsible be taken before the International Criminal Court, the world's permanent war crimes tribunal.
Lavrov said Moscow had already handed over to the U.S. its plan for putting Syria's chemical arsenal under international control, according to comments carried by the Inter-fax news agency. He gave no details, but said he would discuss the proposal with Kerry on Thursday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Kerry is also scheduled to meet Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, and Lavrov was expected to do so as well, U.N. officials said.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country is currently on the Security Council, told Germany's Deutschlandfunk radio that he expects the report from the chemical weapons inspectors who investigated the Aug. 21 attack next Monday. The U.N.'s Haq said he could not confirm the date for the report which will address whether chemical weapons were used — not who was responsible.
Associate Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Sylvie Corbet and Lori Hinnant in Paris, David Rising in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Zeina Karam and Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Washington.