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Sunday 18 February 2018

Diplomats in two-front Syria effort

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are headed to Geneva (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are headed to Geneva (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Key nations are moving on two diplomatic fronts to try to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, with a fresh effort apparently under way to bring the government and opposition to peace talks.

The five veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, which have been deeply divided over Syria, met to discuss what to include in a new resolution requiring that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile be secured and dismantled. They later left Russia's UN mission without commenting.

At the same time, US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov headed to Geneva with teams of experts for broader-ranging talks today about the nuts and bolts of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control and destroying them, diplomats said.

The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was also heading to Geneva to be available to meet Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov, whose efforts to start peace talks to end the two and a half-year Syrian conflict have been halted by a government offensive and a deadly suspected poison gas attack on August 21.

The diplomatic flurry follows the threat of US strikes against President Bashar Assad's regime and a surprise offer from Mr Kerry that Assad could avert US military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week. Russia, Syria's most important ally, and Assad's government quickly agreed on the broad proposal, but details still need to be worked out.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Russian president Vladimir Putin called for caution in dealing with Syria, saying a potential strike by the US would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond the country and unleash a wave of terrorism.

A senior UN diplomat said the meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov will be an exploratory session to gauge whether they can embark on "the Herculean task" of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons while the country is at war. While serious differences have already emerged - especially on whether a UN resolution should be militarily enforceable as the US and its Western allies are demanding - the diplomatic moves represent the first major effort in more than a year to try to get supporters of the Syrian government and opposition on the same page.

Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the conflict, which has left the UN's most powerful body paralysed as the war escalates and the death toll surpasses 100,000. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon earlier this week called the council's paralysis embarrassing.

"What the secretary general has been pressing for is the Security Council to come to a united decision," UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq said. "It's crucially important at this late stage of the war that they come together and take some action that can prevent both the problems regarding the use of chemical weapons and the wider problem of solving this conflict."

The White House said it was not putting a timeline on a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria, though press secretary Jay Carney said putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control "obviously will take some time".

Press Association

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