Transfer of chemical weapons not under U.S. threats, says Syrian President

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has affirmed that his country’s chemical weapon stockpiles would be handed over to an international body, but credited his government’s decision to Russian persuasion rather than intimidation by the United States.

Mr. Assad told Russian television channel Rossiya 24 on Thursday that his government had taken this decision “in response to Russia’s initiative and not over the fear of U.S. aggressive threats”. He added: “Damascus will pass all documents needed for the country to join the Chemical Weapons Convention in the United Nations Organisation”.

Syria’s pledge at the highest level to eliminate its chemical weapon stocks is expected to strengthen Russia’s diplomatic hand in seeking a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis.

As the Syrian President spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was heading to Geneva for a meeting with his U.S counterpart, John Kerry, later on Thursday night. Before emplaning for the Swiss highlands, Mr. Lavrov provided a quick preview of his likely deliberations with Mr. Lavrov. Speaking in the Kazakh capital, Astana, he said his meeting with Mr. Kerry would be in the presence of Russian and U.S. chemical weapons experts who “have the necessary knowledge to identify relevant solutions to such issues”.

“It is necessary to ensure Syria’s adherence to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW], which would entail a declaration of Syria’s chemical weapons storage sites and the disclosure of its chemical [weapons] programme,” he said.

Road ahead

Outlining the road to disarmament, Mr. Lavrov said Syria would have to first sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans manufacture, storage and use of the weapons. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, quoting a diplomat, said Damascus would then be asked to declare the sites of its chemical weapons to the OPCW, to be verified by inspectors.

Ahead of the meeting with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry was to meet Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy on Syria, who was likely to come into the limelight once the stalled political process resumes.

Meanwhile, Iran — a key ally of Damascus — has expressed scepticism over U.S. intentions to persevere with talks over the long haul.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday he hoped “that the new U.S. approach on Syria will be serious and far from political games”.

“If so, it will mean that the U.S. is returning from its self-centred and wrong approach [that it had adopted] in the last few weeks,” he added.

Iran’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also hinted at what he perceived was Washington’s biased approach to the conflict, because of its failure to act on information provided by Tehran that the Syrian opposition was being armed with chemical weapons. In an interview with the English-language Press TV, Mr. Zarif said: “We have indications and we have shared those indications in the past with the United States and with others … [that] extremely dangerous chemical weapons were being smuggled into Syria to armed groups that are fighting the Syrian people and the Syrian government.”

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