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Syria seeks to join treaty banning chemical weapons

Syria sends UN letter of intent to join convention against chemical weapons as part of Russian plan to prevent US military action
Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib province in Syria yesterday. Al Qaeda rebels captured a Syrian town on Wednesday, killing the residents. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib province in Syria yesterday. Al Qaeda rebels captured a Syrian town on Wednesday, killing the residents. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
LONDON // The United Nations received a document from the Syrian government on Thursday night, seeking to join the global treaty banning chemical weapons.

Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires members to completely destroy their stockpiles.

Under the threat of US military action after poison gas attacks killed hundreds last month on the outskirts of Damascus, the government of president Bashar Al Assad agreed to a Russian plan to hand over its chemical arsenal to international control and join the convention.

But Mr Al Assad told Russian state TV that he would only finalise plans to abandon his chemical arsenal when the US stopped threatening to attack him.

"This does not mean that Syria will sign the documents, meet the conditions and that is it," he said. "This is a bilateral process. It is aimed, first and foremost, at the United States ending the policy of threats targeted at Syria."

He said he would send the documents to join the convention in a few days.

"The petition will contain technical documents required to sign the agreement. After that, work will start that will lead to the signing of the convention prohibiting chemical weapons," Mr Al Assad said.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Thursday night: "In the past few hours we have received a document from the government of Syria which is being translated," adding it was "an accession document concerning the chemical weapons convention".

Little is known about the size and nature of the Syrian stockpile, and until a few days ago Damascus denied having such weapons.

A French intelligence estimate suggests Syria has about 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons grade material.

The UN announcement came as top American and Russian diplomats began two days of meetings in Switzerland to find agreement on how to secure and destroy Syria's chemical arsenal.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, were accompanied to Geneva by teams of chemical weapons experts to provide advice.

Before the meeting Mr Kerry expressed scepticism at the Syrian regime's promise to join the convention.

"The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough, which is why we've come here in order to work with the Russians," he said.

A version of the Russian plan, leaked to the newspaper Kommersant, described four stages.

Syria would join the world body that enforces a chemical weapons ban, declare production and storage sites, invite inspectors, then decide with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.

The US, along with Britain and France, wants a binding UN resolution that carries a threat of action should Syria fail to comply.

Moscow has threatened to veto any resolution that includes provision for military action.

Writing in The New York Times on Thursday, the president Vladimir Putin castigated Washington for relying on "brute force", and warned Americans that any US strike risked regional contagion and could provoke terrorist attacks.

There is some hope that the Russian plan and the meeting in Geneva could prove a rare diplomatic breakthrough in which everyone can claim some kind of victory.

British foreign secretary William Hague told UK parliamentarians that Britain would support an "enforceable" agreement that "credibly, reliably and promptly" placed Syria's chemical weapons stocks under international control.

On Wednesday, White House officials said Russian proposals to seize Syrian chemical arms had been significant and "very specific".

But a US-Russian initiative to neutralise Syria's chemical weapons poses a formidable logistical challenge that experts say simply can't be achieved in the short term.

There has never been a full accounting of Syria's weapons, said Emily Chorley, a Toronto chemical weapons expert and proliferation editor with IHS Jane's.

"Without undertaking major investigations, it would be impossible for the international community to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria with any confidence that the entire arsenal has been handed over," Ms Chorley said.

And a time is almost impossible to set, said Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Britain's Leeds University.

It would depend, Prof Hay said, not only on the size of the weapons cache but on the logistical difficulties for international experts to operate in a country at war.

"Safe passage for inspectors, getting a full inventory, deciding how you secure these in the first place and then deciding what might be best for their subsequent destruction - there are a lot of issues to consider."

The US blames Mr Al Assad's forces for the chemical weapons attack on August 21 on the edge of Damascus that it says killed more than 1,400 people.

Mr Al Assad's government blames the rebels for the attack.

The other countries who still do not belong to the international Chemical Weapons Convention are Egypt, North Korea, Angola, South Sudan, and Myanmar and Israel who have both signed, but not yet ratified.


* With additional reporting from Reuters and Associated Press

Updated: September 12, 2013 04:00 AM



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