Assad: I'm not giving up chemical weapons out of fear of U.S. attack

Sept. 12, 2013 at 12:59 PM
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MOSCOW, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Syria's agreement to put its supply of chemical weapons under international control was not made because of U.S. threats, Russian TV reported Thursday.

Rossiya 24 quoted President Bashar Assad as saying he agreed to transfer the weapons "in response to Russia's initiative and not over the fear of U.S. aggressive threats," ITAR-Tass reported.

The report added that Assad said "Damascus will pass all documents needed for the country to join the Chemical Weapons Convention in the United Nations organization."

In brief comments at the White House, President Obama said he was "hopeful" meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva "can yield a concrete result."

Kerry is meeting with Lavrov to begin the daunting task of developing a plan that will allow Assad's government to turn over its chemical weapons cache.

Assad's statement came as U.S. officials and opposition groups said rebels were receiving weapons from the CIA after months of delays in delivering promised lethal aid.

The shipments of light arms and other weapons that can be tracked began arriving two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department has also begun delivering non-lethal equipment such as vehicles, communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.

Kerry promised in May delivery of the non-lethal aid would begin "in a matter of weeks."

Several senior U.S. lawmakers had complained of the slowness in getting the supplies and equipment to rebel groups, with some even threatening to withhold support of President Obama's plan for a military strike on the Assad regime.

Opposition forces for which the arms are intended are under the control of Gen. Salim Idris, who has been critical of a Russian-backed proposal for Syria's Assad to cede his chemical weapons to international control.

Idris, head of the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military Council, says the effort, proposed by Lavrov Monday, only seeks to fend off U.S. military strikes in response to evidence that Assad's forces gassed hundreds of Syrians Aug. 21 in an attack on Damascus suburbs, Time magazine reported Thursday.

"We announce our definitive rejection of the Russian initiative to place chemical weapons under international custody," Idris said in a video posted online.

"We ask that the international community not be content with withdrawing chemical weapons, which are a criminal instrument, but to hold the perpetrator accountable and prosecute him at the International Criminal Court," Idris said, blaming the Assad regime for the chemical attack that the Obama administration says left at least 1,400 people dead, many of them children.

After President Obama announced Tuesday, during a prime-time televised speech, he would delay a military strike against Assad's forces, fighting broke out across Syria, including a renewed drive by government troops to reclaim the Christian town of Maaloula.

A U.S. official said during Kerry's flight to Geneva the Obama administration would use the meeting as a barometer to "see if in fact we can test whether there is a credible and authentic way forward here, that the Russians mean what they say, as importantly, probably more importantly, that Assad means what he says and that in fact we can move forward with a program that is verifiable, that can happen expeditiously, so that Assad cannot have access to and continue to use chemical weapons against his own people."

U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal the two diplomats would not try to resolve a key point of contention between Russia and Western powers concerning whether the resolution to take control of Syria's chemical weapons should be accompanied by a threat of force.

The Obama administration and its allies want a "self-enforcing," binding Security Council resolution authorizing military action if Assad balks. Moscow says the agreement, which it wants non-binding, would work only if Washington withdraws the force threat.

At the very least, the White House said Wednesday, any diplomatic solution must include a way to verify the removal of the weapons from Assad's control, CBS News said. The administration did not outline any other conditions or offer a timeline for negotiations.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Russia's stepping forward and saying it wanted to hold Assad accountable, "after two years of blocking efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere," was "significant."

"It demonstrates that Russia is now putting its prestige on the line when it comes to moving further along this diplomatic avenue," Carney said.

"We are very interested in having a U.N. Security Council resolution," Carney said. "And I think this whole process will test the seriousness of all participants, and it is absolutely the right thing to do to pursue this and see if it can bear fruit."

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News a potential timeline could emerge from the Kerry-Lavrov meeting.

The meeting should provide "a much clearer picture of, number one, the real possibility of this -- the seriousness of the Russians, the seriousness of the Syrians in accepting any proposal that might come forth," Menendez said, "and ... how we might look at time frames as part of the resolution."

Also Thursday, a French envoy is to present to Russian and Chinese delegations at the U.N. Security Council a draft resolution calling for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpiles immediately. The draft already was approved by the United States and Great Britain. However, Time said, Russian officials have expressed concerns about the draft, which reportedly blames the Aug. 21 gas attack on forces loyal to the regime, and leaves a military option on the table if Assad's regime does not comply -- a condition Russia has dismissed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday a U.N. team of chemical weapons inspectors likely would report its findings on the Aug. 21 attacks Monday, CBS News reported.

The team spent three days collecting evidence and interviewing people in the area with a mandate to determine exactly what was used, but not who used the chemical weapons.

During an interview with Iran's government-backed Press TV broadcast Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he still doubted that Assad's government gassed its own citizens.

"There was and still is no proof that the use of chemical weapons was perpetrated by the government," Zarif said.

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