AMMAN/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from U.S. military strikes, while its jets returned to the sky to bomb rebel positions in Damascus for the first time since the West threatened force.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki accepted the Russian proposal “to spare Syrian blood,” state television reported.
The United States and France had been poised to launch missile strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which they blame for chemical weapons attacks that killed hundreds of civilians on August 21.
The White House said President Barack Obama, who called the Russian proposal a potential breakthrough, would still proceed with a vote in Congress to authorize force.
But the vote now appears more about providing a hypothetical threat to back up diplomacy, rather than to unleash immediate missile strikes to punish Damascus for gassing its civilians.
The Russian diplomatic initiative, which emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry alluding to such a deal, marks a sudden reversal following weeks in which the West appeared finally headed towards intervention, having stayed on the sidelines while war escalated for years.
But whether inspectors can neutralize chemical weapons dumps while war rages in Syria remains open to question.
Syria’s rebels reacted with deep dismay, saying the proposal had already emboldened Assad to launch a deadly new offensive and meant that last month’s gas attacks would now go unpunished.
France said it would put forward a U.N. Security Council draft resolution on the basis of Moscow’s proposal. Syria would have to put its stockpiles of chemical arms under international control and face “extremely serious” consequences if it violated the conditions, Paris said.
The proposal provides a way out for Obama, to avoid ordering unpopular action. It may make it easier for him to win backing from a skeptical Congress, which could have severely damaged his authority if it withheld support for strikes.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, visiting Moscow, as saying Damascus had agreed to the Russian initiative because it would “remove the grounds for American aggression”.
While the diplomatic wrangling was under way in far-flung capitals, Assad’s warplanes bombed rebellious districts inside the Damascus city limits on Tuesday for the first time since the August 21 poison gas attacks. Rebels said the strikes demonstrated that the government had concluded the West had lost its nerve.
“By sending the planes back, the regime is sending the message that it no longer feels international pressure,” activist Wasim al-Ahmad said from Mouadamiya, one of the districts of the capital hit by the chemical attack.
The war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. It threatens to spread violence across the Middle East, with countries endorsing the sectarian divisions that brought civil war to Lebanon and Iraq.
The Russian proposal “is a cheap trick to buy time for the regime to kill more and more people,” said Sami, a member of the local opposition coordinating committee in the Damascus suburb of Erbin, also hit by last month’s chemical attack.
But Damascenes in pro-Assad areas were grateful for a reprieve from Western strikes: “Russia is the voice of reason. They know that if a strike went ahead against Syria, then World War Three – even Armageddon – would befall Europe and America,” said Salwa, a Shi’ite Muslim in the affluent Malki district.
“I’m so happy. I’m so grateful. Our country will be alright,” she said.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative.
“It was extremely well played by the Russians, but we didn’t want someone else to go to the U.N. with a resolution that was weak. This is on our terms and the principles are established. It puts Russia in a situation where they can’t take a step back after putting a step forward,” said a French diplomatic source.
The White House portrayed the deal as a success that vindicated Obama’s firm stance.
“We see this as potentially a positive development and we see this as a clear result of the pressure that has been put on Syria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.
The Russian proposal could make it easier for members of the U.S. Congress to vote to authorize action as part of a diplomatic initiative, knowing that it will not lead directly to missile strikes which are opposed by most Americans.
Republican Senator John McCain, a leading hawk, said lawmakers were working on new wording of a Congressional resolution to ensure “strict timelines and guidelines that would have to be met” for Assad to give up chemical arms.
The White House and the Kremlin both said the Russian proposal was not entirely new and that Obama and President Vladimir Putin had discussed the principles behind it in the past. Putin’s spokesman said it came up at a summit last week.
Nevertheless, it appeared to emerge out of the blue after unscripted remarks by Kerry, who responded to a question in London on Monday by saying the only way for Assad to avoid U.S. strikes would be to relinquish his chemical weapons.
In his initial remarks Kerry said such an event was unlikely, and the State Department said he was only making a rhetorical point. But within hours, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was proposing exactly that, and Obama was cautiously hailing a potential breakthrough.
With veto-wielding China also backing it, it would be the rare Syria initiative to unite global powers whose divisions have so far blocked Security Council action. Assad’s main regional backer Iran has also signaled support, as has U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Gulf Arab states which support the rebels were skeptical, however: “It’s all about chemical weapons but doesn’t stop the spilling of the blood of the Syrian people,” said Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Shekih Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
After 12 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has had a hard time winning support for strikes from the public or Congress. Britain quit the coalition threatening force after Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in parliament.
Obama was still cautious: “It’s possible that we can get a breakthrough,” he told CNN, although he said there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by Assad.
“We’re going to run this to ground,” he said. “John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”
The wavering from the West dealt an unquestionable blow to the Syrian opposition, which had thought it had finally secured military intervention after pleading for two and a half years for help from Western leaders that vocally opposed Assad.
The rebel Syrian National Coalition decried a “political maneuver which will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause more death and destruction to the people of Syria.”
Assad’s forces – which had been withdrawing from fixed positions and bracing for expected Western strikes – appear to have responded to the hesitation by redoubling an offensive to clear fighters from Damascus suburbs.
Troops and pro-Assad militiamen tried to seize the northern district of Barzeh and the eastern suburb of Deir Salman near Damascus airport, working-class Sunni Muslim areas where opposition activists and residents reported street fighting.
Fighter jets bombed Barzeh three times and pro-Assad militia backed by army tank fire made a push into the area. Air raids were also reported on the Western outskirts near Mouadamiya.
Syria is not a party to international treaties which ban the stockpiling of chemical weapons but is bound by the Geneva conventions that forbid using them in war. Syria has not said whether it possesses poison gas, while denying it has used it.
Western states believe Syria has a vast undeclared chemical arsenal. Sending inspectors to destroy it would be hard even in peace and extraordinarily complicated in the midst of a war.
The two main precedents are ominous: U.N. inspectors dismantled the chemical arsenal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s but left enough doubt to provide the basis for a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rehabilitated by the West after agreeing to give up his banned weapons, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011.
Assad’s government says last month’s chemical attack was the work of rebels trying to win Western military support, a scenario Washington and its allies say is not credible.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, said evidence strongly suggested Syrian government forces were to blame because the attack used rockets and launchers in the possession only of government forces.