9 Sep 2013

Russia urges Syria to hand over its chemical weapons

Russia calls on Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and have them destroyed to prevent a military attack by the US, in a move welcomed by Damascus.

Prime Minister David Cameron also welcomed the proposal from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

During a visit to London, US Secretary of State John Kerry had said Syria could forestall military action by giving up his chemical arsenal, something he did not expect to see.

But Moscow took up the idea as a possible solution to the current impasse over the alleged use of nerve gas against civilians in a Damascus suburb on 21 August. His Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallemv said his government “welcomes Russia’s initiative”.

Earlier, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad said the US should expect every kind of retaliation, from a range of groups in the Middle East, if it launches a strike on Syria.

Speaking as congress begins to debate Barack Obama’s plan for a punitive strike on Syria, Assad told US network CBS that it is not just his government that could be behind any retaliation against US actions.

It is not about confidence, it is about evidence. Bashar al-Assad

“You should expect everything, not necessarily from the government, the government are not the only player in the region, you have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideologies – you have everything in this region now so you have to expect that,” he said.

Assad also said that there is “no evidence” that his regime launched a chemical weapons attack, and compared US Secretary of State John Kerry’s evidence to that of Colin Powell ahead of the Iraq invasion.

“He presented his confidence, and he prevented his convictions,” Assad said. “It is not about confidence, it is about evidence.

“The Russians have completely opposite evidence that the missiles were thrown from an area where the rebels controlled.”

Mr Kerry, who is in London to meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague (see video, below), dismissed Assad’s claim, saying: “The evidence speaks for itself.”

Read more from Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Miller: Syria debate: a historic moment for 'Team America'

The interview comes as congress begins to debate the US response to the alleged attack. Much will rest on what those in congress believe is the view of the American people.

Assad ‘concerned’

CBS presenter Charlie Rose said Assad’s interview contains a message for the American people – that they do not want to get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict.

Mr Rose also said Assad would neither confirm nor deny whether Syria had chemical weapons, but said that if they did they would be under centralised control.

We need to hear an appropriate outcry as we think back on those moments in history when large numbers of people have been killed because the world was silent. John Kerry

Mr Rose also said he asked Assad if he feared a US attack would tip the balance in the two and a half year war, which has been responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people. Assad was rsaid to be “very concerned”.

Assad was also reported to have said the US should produce evidence of his involvement in the Damascus attack if it has such evidence.


Barack Obama and John Kerry say they are certain that Assad is behind the attack. They have cited videos posted on social media sites, which show men, women and children apparently suffering from the effects of chemical weapons.

Other evidence the US government says confirms Assad’s guilt includes telephone intercepts, and Syrian army movements in the days leading up to the attack.

More than 1,400 people were killed in the chemical attack, the Obama administration says.

Congress debates

Mr Obama and Mr Kerry have also been on their own rigorous campaign of public appearances as they seek to convince the public, and those in the US Senate and congress, to vote in favour of a punitive strike on the Assad regime.

The president will appear again on US television on Monday night, in pre-recorded interviews with various channels. He will also address the nation on Tuesday night.

The United Kingdom will continue to work closely with the United States taking a highly active role in addressing the Syria crisis. William Hague

Preliminary votes on potential military action are set to take place as soon as Wednesday.

The Washington Post has reported that 111 members of congress are against a military strike, 116 are “leaning” in that direction, and 181 are undecided. Just 25 congressmen were said to be in favour of a strike. 218 votes are needed for a majority.

The Senate, however, is a more positive picture for the president. With a majority of 51 needed, 23 are in favour of a strike, and 50 are undecided. Those against and “leaning” against make up 27 votes.

Relationship still special

In the UK, John Kerry was meeting with William Hague on Monday, at the end of a short European tour and ahead of briefing congress this evening.

The US secretary of state insisted that there is no military solution to Syria, but that dictators and other groups needed to be sent a message that the use of chemical weapons will be punished.

“I think it would be good to hear people saying to a dictator ‘Keep your hands off chemical weapons that kill your own people. Protect your own people’,” he said.

“I think it is important for us to stand up as nations for civility and against actions that challenge notions of humanity and decency and appropriate international behaviour.

“For almost 100 years, the world has stood together against the use of chemical weapons and we need to hear an appropriate outcry as we think back on those moments in history when large numbers of people have been killed because the world was silent – the Holocaust, Rwanda and other moments are lessons to all of us today.”

Despite parliament voting against any British military involvement in the Syrian crisis, both Mr Hague and Mr Kerry insisted the US-UK relationship was still “special” and even “essential.”

Mr Kerry said: “The relationship between the US and UK has often been described as special or essential and it has been described thus simply because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament and it will be for long after that vote.”

The British foreign secretary said the UK would continue to take an active role alongside the US over Syria.

Mr Hague said: “At its heart, the US-UK special relationship is an alliance of value: values of freedom, of maintaining international peace and security, of making sure that we live in a rules based world.

“So the United Kingdom will continue to work closely with the United States taking a highly active role in addressing the Syria crisis and working with our closest ally over the coming weeks and months.”