WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama has postponed his threat to strike Syria, after Bashar al-Assad's government welcomed a Russian plan to gather and destroy its chemical arsenal.
In an address from the White House on Tuesday, Obama said he had asked US lawmakers to delay a vote on whether to authorise military action while Washington studies the Russian initiative.
He said he would stay in personal contact with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for talks on Thursday with his Russian counterpart.
Obama said US cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike.
Obama made his threat of strikes in response to an attack on August 21, when Syrian forces allegedly killed 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus using sarin gas.
He defended the military option again Tuesday in an emotional passage about the horrors of the massacre, and said allowing a dictator to use chemical arms would threaten US security.
But he gave an assurance that there would be no military force used until United Nations weapons inspectors have delivered their report into what happened.
In the meantime, Syria has promised to renounce chemical weapons. It said it would sign the UN treaty banning chemical arms.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told Russia's Interfax news agency: "We are ready to state where the chemical weapons are, to halt production of chemical weapons and show these installations to representatives of Russia, other countries and the UN."
"We want to join the chemical weapons ban treaty. We will respect our commitments in relation to the treaty, including providing information on these weapons."
Syria is one of only seven UN member states not already party to the 1993 "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction."
Signatories are supposed to destroy any chemical weapons under their control and to allow UN inspectors access to their sites.
Putin said the Syrian offer could end the crisis, but only if the United States withdraws its threat to take punitive action.
"It all makes sense and can work if the US side and all those who support it renounce the use of force," Putin said, according to Russian television.
"It is difficult to constrain Syria or another country to disarm unilaterally while military action against that country is being prepared."
Kerry, taking part in an online discussion hosted by Google+, urged Assad to seize the chance for peace.
"Help us in the next days working with Russia to work out the formula by which those weapons can be transferred to international control and destroyed," he pleaded.
Kerry is to discuss the crisis on Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
The US secretary of state said he had already discussed Russia's disarmament plan with Lavrov by telephone and, while Washington remains cautious, he said he found the ideas interesting.
"If we can in fact secure all of the chemical weapons in Syria through this method, clearly that's by far the most preferable, and would be a very significant achievement," he said. AFP