Syria, Sept 10: Russia’s Gambit “Assad Gives Up His Chemical Weapons”

LATEST: Defecting Doctor from Chemical Weapons Programme: “I Have Witnessed Cold Blooded Massacres”

KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

POLITICAL

*Putin: Russia Hopeful Syria Will Make Responsible Decision On Chemical Weapons
*Kerry: I Discussed Russian Proposal on Chemical Weapons “Several Times” with Moscow

*Syrian FM: Proposal For Chemical Weapons “Cuts The Ground From Under America’s Feet”
*France Resolution to UN Security Council: Put Syria’s Chemical Weapons Under International Control

MILITARY
*Activists In Mouadamiyyat Ash Sham Make Video Calling On International Help To End Siege

*Insurgents In Daraa Capture “Pro-Assad Sniper”


Latest Updates, From Top to Bottom

Defecting Doctor from Chemical Weapons Programme: “I Have Witnessed Cold Blooded Massacres”

Dr. Abdel Tawwab Shahrour, a high-level defector from Syria’s chemical weapon program, has said at a Tuesday press conference, “I have witnessed cold blooded massacres, and I coordinated with the rebels and documented these crimes before defecting in August 2013.”

Shahrour, the head of the Chemical Weapons Unit’s Forensic Medical Committee in the Aleppo district, continued,
“We conducted tests on more than four thousand victims and prepared a file that contains the results we found that were submitted to the [Syrian] judiciary, while I kept another copy for myself.”

Shahrour disappeared last month and was believed to have been abducted until the opposition claimed last week that he had quit the regime and was in Turkey.

Shahrour spoke about the March 19 Khan al-Assal chemical attack, in which the regime and opposition have traded claims of responsibility — he said that all forensic investigations indicate that the victims of the strike “inhaled chemical substances such as toxic gases and phosphoric substances”.

The doctor claimed authorities tried to cover up the investigation:

We took samples from the soil in Khan al-Assal, a dead bird, a piece of a victim’s clothing as well as pack of cigarettes and we delivered them to the judiciary. However, these samples’ laboratory results have yet to be released, even though the analysis does not require more than three weeks.

When the Syrian State TV arrived at the scene of the chemical attack, [residents] and the paramedics became nervous. A man was screaming, saying that a warplane bombed the area, causing the attack. He was forced to shut up in order for Syrian State TV to reshoot the scene.

Shahrour later showed documents he said proved that insurgents could not have been behind the Khan al-Assal attack, which killed about 30 people.

Russian FM: Proposal For Syrian Chemical Weapons “Not Completely A Russian Initiative”

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters Tuesday that the proposal for placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control was “not completely a Russian initiative”.

Speaking at a joint press conference after talks with his Libyan counterpart, Mohamed Abdelaziz, Lavrov said the initiative had “developed out of contacts that we have had with our American colleagues, as well as yesterday’s announcement by US Secretary of State John Kerry to allow the opportunity to avoid strikes, if the problem is resolved.”

Lavrov added, “Insofar as we always strive to use even the slightest chance of a peaceful settlement of various crises, we took advantage of [Syrian] Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s stay in Moscow to invite him to consider this possibility – that is, to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control with the prospect of an agreement on their complete destruction, as well as to consider becoming a party to the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

The Russian Foreign Minister went on to discuss US reactions to the proposal:

As for the comments that are coming out of the US, I am proceeding from the assumption that decisions there are made ​​by the US President. In one of his interviews (aired yesterday or this night, Moscow time), President Barack Obama called the proposal a potential breakthrough and said that if there was a way to solve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria by diplomatic means, then that is preferable. Obama further added that, if we can create a clear workable mechanism to solve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria, he is completely “for” that, but that he needed to have specifics. The Russian side is now doing just that – preparing a clear workable plan, for which literally at this very moment we are in contact with the Syrian side. We expect to present the plan in the near future, and will be ready to refine it in conjunction with the UN Secretary General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as members of the UN Security Council.

Lavrov went on to say that Moscow still called for the UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria to continue:

I want to emphasize that this does not negate the need to investigate all the reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. UN experts should definitely return to Syria and fulfill their mandate in full, and then report to the UN Security Council, where the issue must be considered in the light of the totality of evidence, including evidence voiced today by numerous experts, civil society organizations, religious leaders and so on and so forth. The whole set of factors, including, of course, the UN experts’ report, should be taken into account when considering this issue before the UN Security Council. The truth must be established and those guilty held responsible.

Putin: Russia Hopeful That Syria Will Make Responsible Decision On Chemical Weapons

Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters on Tuesday evening that Moscow hoped Syria would agree to have its chemical weapons placed under international control, and for their eventual destruction.

“We presume that not only is it possible, but we are also hopeful that our Syrian partners and friends will make a responsible decision. Not only to agree to put their chemical under [international] control, but agree to their eventual destruction, and to become a party to the International Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. All of this, in my opinion, is a very good step towards the peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis,” Putin said.

France: Russia Objecting to UN Resolution

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that Russia is opposed to the resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons that France is putting before the UN Security Council.

Fabius said, “As I understood, the Russians at this stage were not necessarily enthusiastic, and I’m using euphemism, to put all that into the framework of a U.N. binding resolution.”

Insurgents In Daraa Capture “Pro-Assad Sniper”

Footage from Monday shows insurgents from the Shahada Ar-Rahman Brigade with a man they say is a captured pro-Assad sniper who has “terrorized civilians in Daraa”. The video ends with a threat to Assad.

Activists In Mouadamiyyat Ash Sham Make Video Calling On International Help To End Siege

As regime forces continue to bombard the West Ghouta town of Mouadamiyyat Ash Sham — the site of one of the August 21 chemical weapons attacks — including with surface-to-surface rockets and airstrike, and as the regime continues to impose a blockade on the town, preventing supplies of food and medicine from reaching civilians, activists in the town have made this emotive propaganda video, using children to ask the international community to help end the siege.

The video, uploaded on Tuesday to the YouTube channel of the Free Syrian Army’s Al Fajr Brigade, which is fighting in the town, comes amid activist reports that some civilians who have remained in Muadamiyyat Ash Sham are suffering from malnutrition, and that some children have died as a result of starvation and/or lack of medical care.

The text accompanying the video reads: We demand that the United Nations and the international community, and all humanitarian organizations and humanitarian bodies, put pressure on the Assad regime to break the siege that it has imposed on civilians, and to work urgently for to allow entry of humanitarian aid convoys to save what remains of the city’s residents and their children, following several cases of death due to lack of nutrition and poor medical care.

Kerry: I Discussed Russian Proposal on Chemical Weapons “Several Times” with Moscow

US Secretary of State John Kerry has told legislators that he has had “several conversations” with Russian Foreign Minister about the proposal to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons to an international authority.

Kerry said the plan was “the ideal way to take this weapon away from” Damascus.

Striking a tone of warning, the Secretary of State said: “[This] cannot be a process of avoidance….We are not going to fall for stalling tactics.”

And he and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tried to claim credit for the Obama Administration: “The fact that [President Obama] put military action on the table enabled this new diplomatic option to maybe gain credibility.”

Russian Deputy FM Calls Chemical Weapons Proposal “Chance For Peaceful Solution”

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennadiy Gatilov, has added his voice to the public relations offensive over Moscow’s proposal that Damascus place its chemical weapons stocks under international supervision to avoid a US strike.

Gatilov is quoted by RIA Novosti as making a dig at the Syrian Opposition by saying,”The agreement over the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control could be a chance to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. This requires the political will of all parties, especially those who are still developing power scenarios.”

The quote is placed in a story headlined, “Оппозиция Сирии отказалась отдать химоружие под международный контроль” (“The Syrian Opposition Refuses To Place Chemical Weapons Under International Control”), a rather misleading interpretation of an AFP story that cites the Syrian National Coalition as slamming the Russian proposal as a “political maneuver”.

Syrian FM: Proposal For Chemical Weapons “Cuts The Ground From Under America’s Feet”

Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Al Muallem, who is in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart, said Tuesday that Russia’s proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons stocks be placed under international supervision must “cut the ground from under the feet of US aggression against our country.”

Muallem told the Speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, that Damascus agreed to the initiative on that basis.

RIA Novosti reports that Muallem said the position of “those who seek peace” had become much stronger than “those who want war”, and that his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had been “fruitful”.

Muallem added that the failure of U.S. Congressmen and women to meet with a Russian delegation to discuss the situation in Syria showed “the weakness of their position”.

Spokesman: Putin Discussed Idea for Chemical Weapons with Obama at G20 Summit

The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that Putin and US President Barack Obama discussed the idea of putting Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control at the G20 summit last week.

RIA Novosti spins the report a different way, by citing Peskov as saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry will not reveal the content of Obama’s discussions with Putin, in response to a question about who initiated the question of Syria placing its chemical arsenal under international supervision.

France Resolution to UN Security Council: Put Syria’s Chemical Weapons Under International Control

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that Paris will put a resolution to the United Nations Security Council to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so they can be destroyed.

Fabius said there would be a request for complete inspection of all chemical weapons and “extremely serious” consequences if Syria breached conditions.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who proposed on Monday that Damascus hand over its chemical weapons stocks, said, “We [Russia] are currently working on preparing a workable, precise and concrete plan and for this there are literally right now, in these minutes, contacts with the Syrian side.”

Videos: Regime Continues To Pound Damascus Suburbs As Offensive Continues

The regime continues its heavy shelling of towns in East and West Ghouta, as its offensive to retake the area — vital if Assad is to control the capital, Damascus — continues.

Map showing locations of major regime offensives so far on Tuesday.

This footage from Tuesday morning shows surface-to-surface missile strikes on Muadamiyyat Ash Sham in West Ghouta, the site of one of the August 21 chemical weapons attacks.

Assad’s forces are also targeting towns in East Ghouta and in the northern Damascus suburbs. This video from early Tuesday shows a shell hitting Barzeh, Damascus — the footage also shows some of the extent of the destruction caused by the regime’s bombardment of the area:

Activists report that there have also been regime airstrikes on Barzeh, as clashes resumed this morning between the Free Syrian Army and regime forces inside the neighborhood.

Russian Media Seize On Israeli Report To Suggest Some Chemical Stocks Under Insurgent Control

Russia’s Interfax news agency on Tuesday has seized on a new academic report by the Israeli International Institute for Counter-Terrorism — an academic department that is part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Hertzliya — to run with this scary headline: Сирийские повстанцы некоторое время контролировали не менее двух объектов по хранению химоружия (“Syrian Rebels Controlled At Least Two Chemical Weapons For Some Time”)

It is notable that Interfax does not question that Assad holds chemical weapons stocks — a move that is in line with statements from Russian officials — but centers its reporting on whether the Syrian Arab Army may have lost control of two of those facilities, at least for a while, to Islamist insurgent factions.

Interfax writes:

At the start of the internal conflict [Syria’s chemical weapons] were concentrated in around 10 bases.

According to experts from ICT, the Syrian authorities control the chemical weapons, however there is no full understanding of the fate of those bases linked to chemical weapons in at least two cities, the control of which passed to the rebels for at least some time.

They note that one of these facilities near Aleppo — whose identity is not specified — was in an area that in August 2012 was controlled by the group Jabhat al Nusra, which is close to Al Qaeda

Interfax’s reporting reflects Russian concerns over the insurgency, particularly over Islamist groups, which, Moscow fears, could spill over into its own internal conflict in the Caucasus.

For its part, the ICT academic report reflects concerns among some in Israel that there could be”a real and immediate threat” that chemical weapons, agents or precursors could fall into the hands of terror groups. It cites multiple scenarios in which Assad could intentionally transfer or lose control of the Syria’s stockpiles of gas, nerve and blistering agents.

Russia Sends Black Sea Fleet Destroyer To Syria

The Russian Navy announced on Tuesday that the Kashin-class guided missile destroyer Smetlivy has departed its home port in Sevastopol and is expected to arrive in Syrian waters on September 12.

A Russian Navy spokesman added that the Moskva missile cruiser is also expected to arrive in Syrian waters by September 17; the missile boat Ivanovetz, and the small missile ship Shtil’ are expected to arrive on September 29. Further, on Friday three other ships — the landing ships Novocherkassk and Minsk, and the reconnaissance ship Azov, passed the Dardanelles and entered the command of the Mediterranean squadron.

Resident of Maaloula: Insurgents Forced Me To Leave My Home

The BBC offers another perspective from Maaloula, alongside the claims of insurgents who took over the town and of the Syrian regime and Iran who accuse them of atrocities.

In a video report, a former resident of the historic Christian town says her family was forced to leave their home after insurgents “stole everything”.

Antoinette Nassrallah said the United States should stop sending weaponry to the rebels, and asserted any military action against Syria would be based on a “big lie”.

Propaganda of Day: “Syrian Insurgents Behead 30 Civilians” in Maaloula

Fars News, linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, features lurid claims about the capture of the Syrian town of Maaloula by insurgents on Sunday:

Armed rebels affiliated to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group beheaded tens of Syrian civilians…in Southern Syria.

[A Fars] correspondent in Northern Syria reported that the Al-Nusra terrorists have attacked the Christian city of Maloula in Damascus countryside on Sunday and cut off the heads of 30 civilians.

The report said that a number of women and children were also among those beheaded by the Al-Qaeda terrorists.

The armed rebels also abducted a total of 15 other Christian citizens in Maloula city last night.

Maaloula, a site of ancient Christianity, was briefly occupied by a range of insurgent groups — including Free Syrian Army brigades as well as Islamist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra — on Thursday before they withdrew as the Syrian military shelled the areas. The insurgents returned on Sunday and held the center, declaring they would protect homes and churches.

(Cross-posted from Iran Today)

Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim 76 people were killed on Monday, including 37 in Damascus and its suburbs.

The Violations Documentation Center put the number of dead at 72,641 since the conflict began in March 2011, an increase of 87 from Monday. Of the dead, 54,715 are civilians, a rise of 49 from yesterday.

Jump to Latest Update

Tuesday Summary

SUMMARY: In a day of political maneuvers, Russia seized the initiative on Monday with the proposal that the Syrian regime give up its chemical weapons stocks to international supervision.

After meeting his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Damascus should also become a full member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Moscow’s move followed remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry, after a meeting in London, that President Assad could avoid an American attack by handing over the chemical weapons. The State Department later said that Kerry had been speaking “rhetorically” to highlight Assad’s defiance and the danger of the weapons and that he did not expect Damascus to comply

However, Lavrov’s announcement brought a sharp change in position from Washington. In interviews broadcast on Monday night, President said the step was “a modestly positive development” and a “significant breakthrough”. He added that US airstrikes would “absolutely” be postponed if Assad handed over the stocks.

Trying to present the sudden shift as a victory for his policy, Obama said “a credible threat of a military strike from the United States” had brought the offer.

Leaders of the US Senate followed Obama’s lead, delaying a vote scheduled for Wednesday because of “international discussions”.

A question for consideration: most media presented Russia as taking advantage of a Kerry blunder — but what if the Secretary of State’s message was not a slip? What if the moves were orchestrated between Washington and Moscow?

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Joanna Paraszczuk is EA WorldView's Managing Editor. An Israeli journalist, she covered Iran and the Arab World for The Jerusalem Post. Previously, she lived and worked in Russia and Ukraine. Joanna speaks fluent Hebrew and Russian and reads Persian and Arabic.

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