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Syria agrees to Russian plan

The move follows threats by the US and France to stage a military strike on the country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

PRETORIA - Syria has accepted a Russian proposal that it turn over chemical weapons to the United Nations (UN) for eventual destruction.

This move would allow the United States (US) to step back from launching a military strike to stop Syria repeating a nerve gas attack on civilians.

Russia led the diplomatic efforts to avert a US military strike using an offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry that military action could be prevented if Syria handed its chemical weapons arsenal to the UN.

France, which backs US plans to launch a punitive strike on President Bashar al-Assad's regime, is drafting a resolution giving the Russian proposal teeth in the UN Security Council.

The US and France had been poised to launch missile strikes to punish al-Assad's forces, which they blame for chemical weapons attacks that they say killed more than 1,400 civilians on 21 August.

Due to speak directly to the American people on Tuesday night, US President Barack Obama is likely to stress the need to maintain pressure on al-Assad.

However, calling it a breakthrough, he has agreed to give space and time to the Russian proposal.

The vote now appears more about providing a hypothetical threat to back up diplomacy, rather than to unleash immediate missile strikes to punish Damascus for gassing its civilians.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

Whether inspectors can neutralise chemical weapons dumps while war rages in Syria remains open to question.

Syria's rebels reacted with deep dismay, saying the proposal had already emboldened al-Assad to launch a deadly new offensive and meant that last month's gas attacks would now go unpunished.

France said it would put forward a UN Security Council draft resolution on the basis of Moscow's proposal. Syria would have to put its stockpiles of chemical arms under international control and face "extremely serious" consequences if it violated the conditions, Paris said.

The proposal provides a way out for Obama, to avoid ordering unpopular action. It may make it easier for him to win backing from a sceptical Congress, which could have severely damaged his authority if it withheld support for strikes.

After 12 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has had a hard time winning support for strikes from the public or Congress. Britain quit the coalition threatening force after Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in parliament.

Obama was still cautious: "It's possible that we can get a breakthrough," he told CNN, although he said there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by al-Assad.

"We're going to run this to ground," he said. "John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."

WHOSE IDEA?

The White House and the Kremlin both said the Russian proposal was not entirely new and that Obama and President Vladimir Putin had discussed the principles behind it in the past. Putin's spokesman said it came up at a summit last week.

Nevertheless, it appeared to emerge out of the blue after unscripted remarks by Kerry, who responded to a question in London on Monday by saying the only way for al-Assad to avoid US strikes would be to relinquish his chemical weapons.

In his initial remarks, Kerry said such an event was unlikely and the State Department said he was only making a rhetorical point. But within hours, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was proposing exactly that, and Obama was cautiously hailing a potential breakthrough.

With veto-wielding China also backing it, it would be the rare Syria initiative to unite global powers whose divisions have so far blocked Security Council action. Al-Assad's main regional backer Iran has also signalled support, as has UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Gulf Arab states which support the rebels were sceptical, however: "It's all about chemical weapons but doesn't stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people," said Bahrain's Foreign Minister Shekih Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.

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