BASHAR al-Assad last night promised to surrender all of Syria's chemical weapons, while adding the strong caveats that the United States first had to stop threatening his country and supplying weapons to rebels.
The Syrian president's comments on Russian state television amounted to his first admission that his country even possessed such weapons, which the West says his regime used in a massacre of 1,400 civilians last month.
Assad said he would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin handing over details of Syria's stockpile a month later, in line with a Russian proposal designed to avert a punitive US bombing campaign.
"In the next few days we will send the necessary documents to the UN, including the technical documents that are needed to draft such an agreement," he said.
"Then we will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. It should come into force about a month after signing. That's the standard process under consideration."
But John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, last night warned that America would only accept a deal on Syria's chemical weapons that guaranteed the regime's disarmament as he launched high-stakes negotiations with his Russian counterpart.
Mr Kerry called his summit with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, a historic moment that must produce a substantive agreement. But as they opened talks in a five-star hotel in Geneva, he said the US wanted more than mere promises from Bashar al-Assad's government.
"Diplomacy can avoid military action," he said. "The world watches closely whether the Assad regime lives up to its promise to give up chemical weapons. The words of the Syrian regime . . . are simply not enough. This is not a game."
Mr Kerry said there must be a "timely" effort by the regime to relinquish its stocks, apparently rejecting a 30-day deadline proposed by Damascus for declaring its arsenal. He added there must be "consequences" if it did not.
"President Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons," Mr Kerry said.
For his part, Mr Lavrov declared that the meeting represented a new opportunity to bring peace to Syria and said the talks needed a spirit of mutual cooperation.
The Geneva talks could produce a deal as early as the weekend. If that transpires, the focus will shift to the United Nations Security Council to see if its members can thrash out a resolution compelling Damascus to fulfil its requirements.
Western officials said yesterday that America had already indicated to its allies that it was ready to concede that a UN Security Council resolution could be adopted under Chapter 6 of the UN Chapter, not Chapter 7, which authorises the use of force to impose its terms.
But the UN confirmed it received documents from Syria seeking to join the convention, which outlaws the production and use of chemical weapons.
Though Assad's commitments will offer some encouragement to Washington as talks on the Russian plan continue, the Syrian leader's characteristic defiance in the rest of his interview with Rossiya 24 will give cause to doubt his sincerity.
He warned that his promise "doesn't mean it is a one-sided process".
"It counts most of all on the US renouncing threats of force and adhering to the Russian plan," Assad said. "When the US stops supplying weapons to terrorists and we see they are committed to stability in the region, then we will be ready to see this process through to the end."
He even linked the US to the deadly sarin attack on August 21 in a Damascus suburb which raised the spectre of US air strikes.
"If we look at the past few days, the threats were not about giving up chemical weapons. They were based on a provocation (on August 21). . . A provocation realised by the leadership of the United States."
The Syrian president also warned that any attack on Syria would be disastrous for the Middle East.
However, a UN report into the chemical weapons attack will provide circumstantial evidence that indicates Mr Assad's government is culpable, Western officials said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)