Updated with comment from Russian ambassador.
PARIS (Sylvie Corbet, Associated Press) – Tense negotiations have begun on a proposed UN resolution that would put Syria's chemical weapons under international control and end a diplomatic stalemate over a deadly August 21 poison gas attack, a French official said Wednesday.
The plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, initiated by Russia, appeared to ease one diplomatic stalemate only to open up new potential for impasse as Moscow rejected US and French demands for a binding UN resolution with "very severe consequences" for non-compliance.
The French official close to the president, who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations remained sensitive, said Russia objected not only to making the resolution militarily enforceable, but also to blaming the August 21 attack on the Syrian government and demanding that those responsible be taken before an international criminal court.
Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called "a trap," Paris and Washington are pushing for a UN Security Council resolution to verify Syria's disarmament. Russia, a close ally of Syrian leader Bashar Assad and the regime's chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France's proposal on Tuesday.
Alexandre Orlov, Russia's ambassador to France, did not answer directly when asked Wednesday about specific Russian objections. "We think that the proposal came together quickly, in haste," Orlov told France Inter radio. "It's sure there are chemical weapons on both sides. The important thing is to forbid them, put them under international control. Then we will see who uses them."
The diplomatic maneuvering threatened growing momentum toward a plan that would allow US President Barack Obama to back away from military action.
Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the United States, even as Obama seeks Congress' backing for action – and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
In a nationally televised speech Tuesday night, Obama told Americans that diplomacy suddenly holds "the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons" in Syria without use of force, but he declared that the US military will "be ready to respond" against Assad if other measures fail.
For now, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria. Obama pledged that any military action would be limited and wouldn't involve deploying ground combat troops or waging a prolonged air campaign.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV on Tuesday that Syria would place its chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, other unspecified countries and the United Nations. Syria will also declare the chemical arsenal it long denied having, stop producing such weapons and sign conventions against them.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons program to inspection, place it under international control and ultimately dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry "very serious consequences." The resolution would condemn the August 21 attack and bring those responsible to justice, he said.
Obama threw his support behind the French resolution and discussed the matter with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. But he continued to push his original plan to win congressional authorization for US airstrikes in case the diplomatic efforts fail.
The prospect of a deal that could be enforced militarily met swift opposition from Russia, which has provided economic, military and diplomatic support to Assad throughout the 2½-year conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plan can only work if "the American side and those who support the USA, in this sense, reject the use of force."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his French counterpart that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, the UN resolution authorizing force, his ministry said in a statement.
A UN commission on Wednesday said it had confirmed at least eight massacres perpetrated by Assad's forces and supporters and one carried out by rebels over the past year and a half. Calling all of Syria a battlefield where "massacres are perpetrated with impunity," the UN commission said it is probing nine more suspected mass killings since March.
Its latest report Wednesday updates its work from 2011 until mid-July, stopping short of the August 21 attack. What has been left unaddressed in the flurry of diplomacy is the broader civil war in Syria, which has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and forced more than 6 million Syrians – nearly a third of the population – to flee their homes.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, dismissed the Assad government's turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment. In a statement Tuesday, the Coalition said Moscow's proposal "aims to procrastinate and will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people."
Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris, David Rising in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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