Ban welcomes Russia, U.S. pitch on surrendering chemical weapons

Sept. 9, 2013 at 4:26 PM
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DAMASCUS, Syria, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is supports calls for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to avert a U.S. airstrike.

"I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed," Ban said Monday during a news conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned Monday that inaction to Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria -- of which U.S. officials say they have evidence -- would threaten U.S. national security and the security of its allies, while potentially lessening the U.S. role in the international community.

Doing nothing puts "Americans at risk of chemical attacks, targeted at our soldiers and diplomats in the region and potentially our citizens at home," Rice said in a speech in Washington the day before President Obama gives a televised speech to try to boost public support for a limited military response.

"Every time chemical weapons are moved, unloaded, and used on the battlefield, it raises the likelihood that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists active in Syria, including Assad's ally, Hezbollah and al-Qaida affiliates," she said. If that happens, it threatens not just the United States but its allies, including Israel, "where people once again have readied gas masks."

Rice said there is "no doubt" about who is responsible for the Aug. 21 attack.

"The Syrian regime possesses one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world," she said. "Assad has been struggling to clear these very neighborhoods in Damascus and drive out the opposition, but his conventional arsenal was not working well enough or fast enough.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he told his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, Russia would urge that Syria cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile if it would prevent a U.S. military strike in response to evidence President Bashar Assad's forces used chemical weapons against civilians in an attack Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400.

While in London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," Kerry said during a news conference after his meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done obviously."

A state department spokeswoman said Kerry was "making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."

"I welcome these ideas," Ban said of Lavrov's and Kerry's comments.

While the report from the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors hasn't been received, Ban said if it confirmed chemical weapon use in the Aug. 21 attacks "then this will be an abominable crime, and the international community would certainly have to do something about it."

Discussions about Syria's 2 1/2-year civil war have produced "only embarrassing paralysis" at the U.N. Security Council, Ban said. Russia, a permanent member, has blocked anti-Syrian resolutions before the council.

Ban said he was reviewing options to get the panel moving on the issue, among them one "urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed."

If the chemical weapons inspectors confirm allegations of chemical weapons use, "there would be a need for accountability both to bring to justice those who used them," Ban said, "and to deter anyone else from using this abhorrent method of warfare. There would be a need for greater security regarding any chemical weapons stocks. And there remains an urgent need for the international conference in Geneva and the cessation of hostilities."

"The Syrian people need peace," he said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling the situation "fluid" with statements from Russia, Syria and others, said if the Assad regime "immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control ... that would be an important step."

But, she cautioned, "this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction, and Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account."

Antony Blinken, U.S. deputy national security adviser, reiterated to reporters during the daily White House briefing what administration officials have told members of Congress:

"That we've concluded with high confidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on August 21st with rockets and artillery against its own civilians. We told them that we concluded that well over 1,000 people had been killed, including hundreds of children."

"We ran through in detail the intelligence that we have, intelligence that shows preparation for the attack, intelligence that shows the attack itself and its effects, post-attack observations by key participants, and then more recently various physiological samples -- blood, skin, as well as soil -- that showed that sarin was used," Blinken said. "We made the case that it was very important to stand up for the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, a prohibition that I think all of you know has been in place basically since the end of World War I."

Others around the world may be watching, countries such as Iran and North Korea, and terror groups such as Hezbollah, he said.

"If we don't stand up and enforce this prohibition," Blinken said, "they will take the wrong lesson from it."

Also Monday, the White House said 14 more countries signed on to a joint statement on Syria, condemning the Assad regimes use of chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack. On Sept. 6, during the Group of 20 summit in Russia, the United States and 10 other countries issued the statement that supports efforts by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

"We welcome additional countries expressing their support for this statement and our continued efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable and enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons," the White House said in a statement.

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