Envoys seek UN resolution on Syria as France, Russia squabble

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference following his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy in Moscow September 16, 2013. Lavrov said on Monday it may be time to consider efforts to force foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend an international peace conference instead of just urging them to do so.
SERGEI KARPUKHIN | REUTERS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference following his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy in Moscow September 16, 2013. Lavrov said on Monday it may be time to consider efforts to force foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend an international peace conference instead of just urging them to do so.
Posted Sept. 17, 2013, at 1:23 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 17, 2013, at 5:34 p.m.

UNITED NATIONS — Diplomats from five key nations kicked off talks on Tuesday on a Western-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons even as France and Russia clashed over Moscow’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad is innocent in an Aug. 21 poison gas attack on civilians.

The negotiations among the American, British, French, Russian and Chinese diplomats in New York focused on a draft resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to be put before the 15-nation U.N. Security Council.

The U.S.-British-French draft is intended to support an American-Russian deal reached in Geneva last Saturday calling for Syria to account for its chemical weapons within a week and for the removal and destruction of the arsenal by mid-2014.

U.N. diplomats said it remained unclear when a vote on the resolution could take place.

Meanwhile, Syria’s neighbor Israel, warily eyeing a civil war that has killed 100,000 people since 2011, shifted from its noncommittal public stance and said it wanted to see Assad toppled.

Violence flared anew along Syria’s tense border with Turkey as a car bomb exploded on the Syrian side of the main Bab al-Hawa border crossing, killing at least seven people and wounding 20, the Turkish news agency Dogan said.

The meeting of diplomats from the five permanent, veto-wielding powers of the Security Council came a day after U.N. investigators confirmed the use of sarin nerve agent in the Aug. 21 attack. The United States, Britain and France said the report proved beyond any doubt that Assad’s forces were responsible.

The U.N. report’s findings triggered sharp disagreement at a meeting in Moscow of the top diplomats from Russia and France. Russia has been Assad’s most powerful backer during the civil war, delivering arms and — with China — blocking three U.N. resolutions meant to pressure Assad.

Sitting beside French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at a news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the report produced no proof that Assad’s troops carried out the attack and that Russia still suspected rebel forces did it.

Fabius took the opposite view, saying the report left no doubt that Assad’s forces were to blame for the attack, which the United States says killed more than 1,400 people. Washington has blamed Syrian government forces. Assad’s government blames the rebels.

The American-Russian deal on Syrian chemical weapons followed President Barack Obama’s threats to launch U.S. strikes against Syria in response to the poison gas attack.

“When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack, as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the regime is behind it,” Fabius said.

Lavrov acknowledged that the investigators’ report proved that chemical weapons had been used but that “there is no answer to a number of questions we have asked,” including whether the weapons were produced in a factory or homemade.

“We have very serious grounds to believe that this was a provocation,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov said the U.N. report should be examined not in isolation but along with evidence from sources such as the Internet and other media, including accounts from “nuns at a nearby convent” and a journalist who had spoken to rebels.

“We want the events of Aug. 21 to be investigated dispassionately, objectively and professionally,” he said.

At a briefing in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Lavrov was “swimming against the tide of international public opinion.”

“The report confirms unequivocally that chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, were used in Syria,” she said. “Based on the preliminary review of information contained in the report, several crucial details confirm the Assad regime’s guilt in carrying out this attack.”

At the United Nations, Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the diplomats from United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — known as the “P5″ — would hold further consultations soon.

“Obviously everyone has to put it back to their capitals and then we’ll have a further discussion tomorrow,” he said.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: “I don’t have any initial reaction” to the Western draft resolution.

“We’re doing a very important thing,” Churkin told Reuters. “We originated a very important proposal and we hope it’s going to be implemented without any interference.”

The current Western draft, diplomats said, would condemn and blame Assad for the use of chemical weapons and refer the Syrian civil war to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes indictments.

The draft is also written so that its provisions are under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which covers the Security Council’s authority to enforce its decisions with measures such as sanctions or the use of force.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, made clear his nation’s shift in views on the civil war in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. Even Assad’s defeat by al-Qaida-aligned rebels would be preferable to Syria’s current alliance with Israel’s arch-foe Iran, Oren said.

“We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” Oren said.

“The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc,” Oren said.

Israel and Syria are old enemies, but a stable standoff has endured between them during Assad’s rule. Israel even pursued peace talks with him in hope of divorcing Syria from Iran and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long avoided openly calling for the Syrian president’s fall. Some Israeli officials now worry that radical Sunni Islamist insurgents fighting Assad will eventually turn their guns on the Jewish state.

The White House said Netanyahu would meet with Obama on Sept. 30 for discussions on Syria, Iran and Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians.

Violence in Syria has often spilled over into neighboring Turkey and Lebanon, and sometimes into Jordan and Israel.

Tuesday’s explosion on the Syrian side of the Turkish border crossing occurred at a roadblock manned by hard-line Islamist fighters at the entrance of the rebel-held crossing, several hundred yards from the Turkish side, activists said.

The car bomb exploded a day after Turkish forces shot down a Syrian helicopter that had entered Turkey’s airspace. The Syrian army accused the Turkish government, which backs the uprising against Assad, of trying to escalate tensions along the border.

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