Five UN security council members to discuss Syria plans

Obama postpones vote on Syria action to pursue diplomatic path

US president Barack Obama walks to a podium before a televised address at the White House in Washington DC. Photograph: Evan Vucci/Pool via Bloomberg

US president Barack Obama walks to a podium before a televised address at the White House in Washington DC. Photograph: Evan Vucci/Pool via Bloomberg


Envoys from the five permanent UN Security Council member states will meet in New York on Wednesday to discuss plans to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control, UN diplomats said.

US, French and British diplomats were meeting before then to continue discussions on a possible draft UN Security Council resolution.

An initial French draft called for giving the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad an ultimatum to give up its chemical arsenal or face punitive measures, a text that Russia has said is unacceptable.

Video: President Obama addresses the nation on Syria

Diplomats said there have been other drafts under discussion and an attempt was being made to come up with common language agreeable to all three Western powers. “I think we’ll come to an agreement,” a diplomat from one of the three told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Later, the French, Americans and British envoys will join Russian and Chinese diplomats for a meeting of all five veto-wielding council members.

“I understand they will be discussing general principles of plans to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons,” a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “They (the full five) won’t really be discussing draft resolutions yet.”

The meeting comes a day before US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Geneva to discuss ways of breaking the deadlock on the 15-nation Security Council over Syria.

On Tuesday night US president Barack Obama argued his case to the American people for military action against Syria but said he had asked Congress to postpone a vote on the use of force to pursue a “diplomatic path”.

In a televised address last night, Mr Obama outlined his argument for punishing Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons last month, but halted his push for military strikes to pursue a proposal from Russia, an ally of Syria, that international observers seize the regime’s chemical weapons.

The US president maintained the pressure on the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, saying that he had ordered the US military “to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keep its commitments,” said the US president.

“But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical action without the use of force.”

Speaking from the White House in a 15-minute address, Mr Obama said he had resisted calls for military action against Syria but that the situation “profoundly changed” on August 21st when, he claimed, Assad’s forces gassed more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children.

“If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” the president warned, repeating arguments made by his senior administration officials over the past two weeks.

“As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them.”

Mr Obama described as “encouraging signs” the diplomatic overtures from the Russians on Monday to seek a peaceful solution to avert US military action. Syria have agreed in principle to the proposal from Moscow but the US remains scepticism in the Assad’s new-found willingness to capitulate.

He said US secretary of state John Kerry would speak with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov tomorrow, and that the US would work with Russia and China towards a resolution at the UN security council forcing Syria to give up its chemical weapons and to destroy them under international control.

Responding to criticism in Congress that there was no point in a “pinprick” strike against Dr Assad, Mr Obama said that the US military “doesn’t do pinpricks”.

“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” he said.

The president’s address, originally expected to be a rallying call for military action, came after a frenetic 48 hours of growing opposition at home to the use of force and diplomatic manoeuvres abroad.

Agreeing a political solution could still prove tricky. The US, the UK and France want deadlines set for the handing over of Syria’s chemical weapons backed by the threat of force if it fails to deliver.

Russia said that a UN resolution to remove chemical weapons from Dr Assad was conditional on the US lifting the threat of military action and that assigning blame on Syria’s government was unacceptable.

Reacting today, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that a US promise to pursue diplomacy to remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria was “serious”, the state news agency IRNA reported.

“I am hopeful that the United States new attitude to Syria is serious and not a game with the media. For weeks they have threatened war against the people of this region for the benefit of the Zionists (Israel),” he said during a public address.

Iran is the main regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is embroiled in civil war with rebels who have support from Western powers.

China responded coolly today to a French draft resolution at the UN Security Council to control Syria’s chemical weapons, saying any decisions must be based on consensus and promote a peaceful resolution.

An initial Security Council resolution, drafted by France, would demand that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons programme within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to UN inspectors or face possible punitive measures.

The French draft resolution, seen by Reuters, adds that the Security Council would intend “in the event of non-compliance by the Syrian authorities with the provisions of this resolution ... to adopt further necessary measures under Chapter VII” of the U.N. Charter. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter covers the 15-nation Security Council’s power to take steps ranging from sanctions to military interventions.

It is the reference to Chapter 7, UN diplomats say, that has made Russia reluctant to support the initial French draft.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei would not say explicitly whether Beijing would back or oppose the French proposal, but implied some reservations.

“China supports the UN Security Council in playing an important role on issues of world peace and security and is willing to remain in touch with all sides on the next steps by the security council,” he told a daily news briefing. “We also believe that action by the Security Council must be based on consensus reached after full discussions by all sides, should help ameliorate the present tension in Syria, be helpful to maintaining peace and stability in Syria and the region and be helpful to a political resolution.”

Russia and China have both vetoed previous Western efforts to impose UN penalties on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Hong repeated China’s opposition to any unilateral military action on Syria, and said Russia’s original proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons had created an “important opportunity” for a political resolution. “We hope that all sides can seize this opportunity and proactively put effort into resolving the Syrian issue via political and diplomatic means,” he said.

Hong said China welcomed Syria’s commitment to the Russian initiative. “This is an important stance to take,” he said.

Additional reporting Reuters