Days after the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, where global leaders remained divided on the Syrian crisis, Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control in an attempt to avoid US military strikes. Meanwhile the United States has warned that this recent diplomatic initiative made by Russia may be a form of stalling US air strikes. The announcement of a proposed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons comes one day after two foreign hostages were freed after being held captive for five months in Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced that an offer to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles was made during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, who welcomed the initiative. During talks that were held in Moscow, Mr. Lavrov stated that he had urged Mr. Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction.” He also indicated that once this plan is approved and completed, Syria should fully join the Chemical Weapons Conventions. In response to the proposal, Mr. Muallem indicated that Syria has welcomed Russia’s initiative and has praised its officials for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people.”
Shortly after Russia’s announcement, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in internationally supervised safe zones. During a brief meeting with journalists on Monday, Mr. Ban told reporters that he may propose the zones to the UN Security Council if UN inspectors confirm that such banned weapons were in fact used. He further noted that such a decision may also aid the Security Council’s “embarrassing paralysis” over the Syrian crisis. While the UN’s leader has welcomed Russia’s proposal, and has urged Syria to “agree to these proposals,” adding that there would be “very swift action” by the international community to ensure that the stocks are destroyed, he warned that “first and foremost Syria must agree positively to this.” In turn, Mr. Ban stipulated that if UN inspectors confirm the use of sarin gas in an August 21 attack, the Security Council would have no choice but to act.
Currently a UN team, which is led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is working on a report on whether chemical arms, which are banned under international law, were used in the August 21 attack that occurred near Damascus. If the use is confirmed by the team, then according to Mr. Ban, “this would be an abominable crime, and the international community would certainly have to do something about it.” Officials in Britain, France and the United States have already stated that Assad’s forces carried out the attack in which more than 1,400 people died.
Meanwhile the United States on Monday indicated that while it would take a “hard look” at Russia’s plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, US officials expressed skepticism over the credibility of the initiative. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that “we’ll look at this new development, we’ll take a hard look at it,” cautioning that “clearly we don’t want this as I said, to be another stalling tactic. The Russians for months and years have stood up for the Syrian regime at the UN and in the international community.” In turn, Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor, indicated that despite Russia’s proposal, Washington would not ease pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. During an interview, he stipulated that the US “will just have to follow up with them and with other countries going forward to assess the seriousness of this proposal,” adding that “at the same time, it is going to be very important that we don’t take the pressure off.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also stated that a destruction of the weapons would be a “huge step forward,” however he warned that such a proposition should not be used as a “distraction tactic.”
Assad’s Warning to US
Meanwhile Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad recently gave an interview to US network PBS in which he warned the US against any military intervention, cautioning that the Middle East was “on the bring of explosion,” and that the US would “…pay the price if you’re not wise with dealing with terrorists. There are going to be repercussions.” During the interview, Mr. Assad also stated that the US “should expect everything. The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, different factions, different ideologies. You have everything in this decision now.” The Syrian leader however did not specify whether or not his comments were a threat that Syrian backed groups, such as Hezbollah, would launch retaliation attacks, or whether the comments were a warning that such strikes would bolster al-Qaeda-linked groups. He also denied that he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, adding that there was “no evidence” to hold his government responsible for the 21 August attack.
Hostages Freed From Syria
On Monday, freed Italian journalist Domenico Quirico and Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin spoke about the “very tough” conditions they lived through while being held hostage for five months in Syria. The two men, who were released on Sunday, stated that during the five-month kidnap ordeal, they had been subjected to violence, humiliation and mock executions. While both men indicated that they had overheard their captors discussing a possible rebel involvement in a poison-gas attack near Damascus, Mr. Quirico stated that they had no way of verifying the information. Although minimal details have emerged in regards to the circumstances of the ordeal, reports indicate that Italy’s secret services had stepped up its efforts in order to secure their freedom ahead of the possible US military strikes.
A gaunt and tired Quirico and a heavily bearded Piccinin were first seen late on Sunday after stepping off an Italian government plane in Rome. They later stated that “we are okay despite the torture suffered,” adding that “there was sometimes real violence…humiliation, bullying mock executions, Domenico faced two mock executions, with a revolver.”
According to a statement made by Mr. Quirico, he and Mr. Piccinin were initially picked up in April by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army who then handed them over to the Abu Ammar brigade. The veteran reporter further noted that “the first days we were blindfolded. There were maybe three groups that handled us…the conditions in which we were held were very tough from the start. We were given food at best once a day.” Although the two men tried to escape twice, once while their captors were at prayer, the were tracked down after two days and “seriously punished.”
Mr. Quirico has also been quoted as casting doubts on claims made by Mr. Piccinin relating to an alleged conversation they overheard about the alleged rebel role in the use of chemical weapons. Mr. Quirico has stated that “from a room where we were being held and through a half-open door one day we overheard a conversation in English via Skype involving three people whose identities I do not know,” further stating that “in the conversation, they were saying that the gas operations in two suburbs of Damascus was carried out by rebels as a provocation to force the West to intervene military.” He has since indicated that he is not able to say whether or not this conversation was based on real facts or on hearsay. In turn, a source close to the Belgian government has indicated that Mr. Piccinin’s comments “engage only him personally.”
Concerns on the part of Italian authorities had mounted as the possibility of US-led air strikes on Syria increased. However in the wake of the release of these two men, media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has stated that thirteen journalists are still missing in Syria. Amongst the kidnapped are two French journalists, Didier Francois and Edouard Elias, and US journalist James Foley. Italy is also still attempting to free another one of its nationals who has been missing in Syria since July. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for a number of years.