By Vladimir Isachenkov Associated Press
MOSCOW — In a surprise move, Russia promised Monday to push its ally Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert U.S. strikes.
The announcement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came a few hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons by his forces by surrendering control of “every single bit” of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
Kerry added that he thought Assad “isn’t about to do it,” but Lavrov, who just wrapped a round of talks in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, said that Moscow would try to convince the Syrians.
“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” he said.
Lavrov said that he has already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a “quick, and, hopefully, positive answer.”
His statement followed media reports alleging that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria with President Barack Obama during the group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last week, sought to negotiate a deal that would have Assad hand over control of chemical weapons.
Speaking earlier in the day, Lavrov denied that Russia was trying to sponsor any deal “behind the back of the Syrian people.”
The Russian move comes as Obama, who has blamed Assad for killing hundreds of his own people in a chemical attack last month, is pressing for a limited strike against the Syrian government. It has denied launching the attack, insisting along with its ally Russia that the attack was launched by the rebels to drag the U.S. into war.
Lavrov and al-Moallem said after their talks that U.N. chemical weapons experts should complete their probe and present their findings to the U.N. Security Council.
Al-Moallem said his government was ready to host the U.N. team, and insisted that Syria is ready to use all channels to convince the Americans that it wasn’t behind the attack.
He added that Syria was ready for “full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression.”
Neither minister, however, offered any evidence to back their claim of rebel involvement in the chemical attack.
Lavrov said that Russia will continue to promote a peaceful settlement and may try to convene a gathering of all Syrian opposition figures to join in negotiations. He added that a U.S. attack on Syria would deal a fatal blow to peace efforts.
Lavrov wouldn’t say how Russia could respond to a possible U.S. attack on Syria, saying that “we wouldn’t like to proceed from a negative scenario and would primarily take efforts to prevent a military intervention.”
Putin said that Moscow would keep providing assistance to Syria in case of U.S. attack, but he and other Russian officials have made clear that Russia has no intention of engaging in hostilities.