Middle East

Syria crisis: UN powers discuss Russia chemicals plan

Envoys of the five permanent UN Security Council members have met in New York to discuss a Russian plan for making safe Syria's chemical weapons.

The UK, US and France are eager to frame a binding resolution but Russia prefers a non-binding declaration.

Russia and the US will hold key bilateral talks in Geneva on Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called in a New York Times article for Washington to pursue diplomacy rather than use force.

"The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders," he writes.

He calls for the use of the United Nations Security Council as "one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos".

Syria has backed Russia's plan to place the chemical arms under international control. The US says it will hold off military strikes to pursue diplomacy.

Russia said earlier that it had now sent the US details of its plans.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

In other developments on Wednesday:

  • On the ground, the Syrian army is trying to retake the Christian town of Maaloula. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen, who has been at the scene, says heavy fighting continued throughout the day. Maaloula was overrun by rebel forces, including members of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, at the weekend
  • The latest report by UN rights experts, released on Wednesday, says torture and rape are widespread and war crimes are being committed by both sides
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the UN and its members must share a "heavy burden" for their "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria"
  • The UK-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an air strike on a field hospital in Aleppo province had killed at least 11 people

'Prestige'

US, UK and French diplomats held separate talks before the meeting of the so-called P5 envoys. The meeting lasted less than an hour and envoys declined to comment as they left.

The French have already been working on a draft resolution that would be enforced by Chapter VII of the UN charter, which would in effect sanction the use of force if Syria failed in its obligations.

However, Russia has already indicated that this would be unacceptable, as would any resolution blaming the Syrian government for chemical attacks.

The US holds the Syrian government responsible for such an attack in Damascus on 21 August, saying it killed 1,429 people. The Syrian government blames the attack on rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Thursday for more formal discussions of the proposal. They spoke by telephone on Wednesday.

One diplomat told the BBC that the UN envoys' talks were largely symbolic and that the serious questions would be left for Geneva.

A senior US state department official said on Wednesday: "Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke this morning in advance of the meeting in Geneva tomorrow. They discussed the outlines of the schedule and their shared objective of having a substantive discussion about the mechanics of identifying, verifying and ultimately destroying Assad's chemical weapons stockpile so they can never be used again."

One Russian source told the Itar-Tass news agency the Geneva meeting would be bilateral and not involve the UN.

The source added: "It appears that the meeting should start on Thursday and end on Friday, although it is not ruled out that it may last until Saturday."

US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Moscow had so far "put forward ideas" rather than a "lengthy package".

She said that there were still "components that need to be worked out".

Ms Psaki also confirmed that Mr Kerry would meet UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva.

A team of US arms experts will accompany Mr Kerry.

White House spokesman Jay Carney admitted that the process to make safe the chemical weapons would "obviously take some time".

He added: "Russia is now putting its prestige on the line."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Tuesday made the fullest public admission so far that Syria owned a chemical weapons stockpile and gave a clear commitment to the Russian plan.

"We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons, and show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations," he said.

"Our adherence to the Russian initiative has a goal of halting the possession of all chemical weapons."

Until Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama's government had been lobbying hard for support in Congress for military strikes.

But surveys of politicians had shown he was unlikely to win the planned vote.

In a televised speech from the White House, President Obama said the Russian plan and the regime's admission that it held chemical weapons were "encouraging signs".

"It's too early to tell whether [the Russian plan] will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," he said.