US postpones Syria strike, France reaffirms vow to "punish" Assad

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Anti-war demonstrators protest against US intervention in Syria in front of the White House in Washington on 10 September 2013 before US President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Syria. (Photo: AFP - Nicholas Kamm)

Published Wednesday, September 11, 2013

France will remain ready to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons despite ongoing attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, French President Francois Hollande said Wednesday.

US President Barack Obama postponed his threat to carry out missile strikes against Syria after the government said Tuesday it would sign the UN treaty banning chemical arms.

"France remains determined to punish the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad," government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told RFI radio. "The military option is indeed under consideration if the current diplomatic procedures fail. It is not a hypothetical threat."

Paris put forward a draft UN Security Council resolution on Tuesday setting out the terms for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and warning of "serious consequences" if it resisted, something that Russia has indicated it would not support.

France has declared itself ready to help in military strikes against Syria, but has been left in limbo since the United States decided to seek Congress approval before responding to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus which it claims came from Syrian government troops.

In an address from the White House on Tuesday, Obama said he had asked US lawmakers to delay a vote on whether to authorize military action while Washington studies the Russian initiative.

He said he would stay in personal contact with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for talks on Thursday with his Russian counterpart.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," a somber Obama warned.

"But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies."

Obama said US cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike.

"The US military doesn't do pinpricks," he said. "Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."

US lawmakers, who broadly oppose military action, appeared unmoved by Obama's speech, reiterating concerns that strikes could eventually broaden into a wider involvement.

"He's got to make it clear to me ... that this is not going to mushroom into something else," House Democrat Elijah Cummings said.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, China welcomed Syria's promise to renounce chemical weapons and give up its nerve gas arsenal, as fears of a US-led strike against Bashar al-Assad's government receded.

"We welcome the recent statements by the Syrian government," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

"We hope all relevant sides can grasp this opportunity to solve the Syrian problem through diplomatic and political means," he added.

Damascus has seized on a plan by its ally Moscow for its chemical weapons to be taken under international control, dissipating the momentum for US-led strikes.

Washington accuses Assad's forces of using chemical weapons in an attack last month, and had been looking to build international support for punitive action.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Damascus to "place the chemical weapons under international control and then have them destroyed" – a move which was welcomed by Beijing on Tuesday.

China is a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and over the course of the Syrian conflict it has joined with Russia, a fellow veto-holder, to block resolutions supported by Washington and its allies.

Beijing has regularly called for a "political solution" to the crisis in Syria.

Kerry is to discuss the crisis on Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

The US secretary of state said he had already discussed Russia's disarmament plan with Lavrov by telephone and, while Washington remains cautious, he said he found the ideas interesting.

"If we can in fact secure all of the chemical weapons in Syria through this method, clearly that's by far the most preferable, and would be a very significant achievement," he said.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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