Russia and America will hold crucial talks on Thursday on a plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons after Barack Obama formally put military strikes on hold in favour of diplomacy. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, will meet John Kerry, the US secretary of state, in Geneva to discuss the Kremlin's proposal, under which Bashar al-Assad would surrender his stockpiles of poison gas to international control.
Moscow presented the details of its plan to Washington on Wednesday but the rival powers are deeply divided over whether to threaten the Assad regime with the use of force. France, which has been working closely with America, yesterday circulated a draft United Nations resolution that would give Syria just 15 days to declare all of its chemical weapons or risk attack.
The two allies want a clear timetable for Syria to surrender its arsenal, backed by the threat of military strikes. A specific timeline is also a central British demand, according to the Foreign Office.
But Russia has ruled out any suggestion of threatening military action. It was unclear last night whether its plan came with deadlines. The rival proposals followed Obama's White House address to the nation on Tuesday night, in which he said that Congress would delay any decision on military action "while we pursue this diplomatic path".
The president said it was "too early" to tell if the negotiations would succeed and the US military stood ready to act if diplomacy failed. The UN Security Council's five permanent members were due to meet in New York last night. But a vote on France's draft Resolution has been postponed until Russia and America have completed their Geneva talks and a team of weapons inspectors, who visited the scene of the gas attacks last month, deliver their report to the Security Council. No decision is likely until next week.
A senior Russian MP yesterday warned that Moscow could expand arms sales to Iran and revise the terms allowing US military transit to Afghanistan if Washington launches a strike on Syria.
Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected chief of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, warned if the "party of war" prevails in Washington, Russia should consider those moves. Last night, Interfax, a Russian news agency, said the Kremlin had "passed the United States a plan for fulfilling the initiative on international control of Syrian chemical weapons".
It said that the plan would be "considered" at today's meeting between Lavrov and Kerry, but the foreign ministry in Moscow declined to say anything about its contents. The draft resolution proposed by France meanwhile, laid out the demands of the Security Council's Western members. It set a deadline of 15 days for Assad's regime to submit a "complete and definitive" declaration of its chemical arsenal.
The draft demanded the unconditional destruction of these weapons "under international supervision". If Syria failed to comply, the penalty would be "further necessary measures under Chapter VII" of the UN Charter, which provides for the use of armed force. In addition, the proposed resolution blamed the "Syrian authorities" for the poison gas attacks that claimed hundreds of lives in Damascus on Aug 21.
The draft would also refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), opening the way for Assad and his allies to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes. Russia, by contrast, blames the rebels for the chemical attacks and opposes referring Syria to the ICC. Whether any elements of the French draft would be acceptable to the Kremlin is unclear.
Kerry and Lavrov will try to narrow the gap between them when they meet today. US officials said Kerry would travel with a team of Pentagon experts who will examine the Russian plan. They repeated Kerry's earlier pledge to Congress that any such proposal would have to be "swift, real and verifiable" in order to win American support.
Experts questioned whether there was any realistic prospect of disarming Syria in the middle of a raging civil war. "The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details and a lot of devils," said Adam Ereli, a former US ambassador to Bahrain. "I wouldn't rate the chances very high." In his White House address, Obama said US warships would stay in the eastern Mediterranean "to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails".
Assad's regime said again that it accepted the Russian plan yesterday but denied this would entail placing its chemical weapons under international control, let alone destroying them. "