Putin sees hope in Syria deal; Kerry says it's vital U.N. acts

Alexei Anishchuk and Arshad Mohammed
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Female members of the "Mother Aisha" battalion sit together along a street in Aleppo's Salaheddine district

Female members of the "Mother Aisha" battalion sit together along a street in Aleppo's Salaheddine district, September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Loubna Mrie

By Alexei Anishchuk and Arshad Mohammed

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he could not be 100 percent certain a U.S.-Russian plan for the destruction of Syrian chemical arms would be carried out successfully, but he saw reason to hope it would.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was essential the deal reached last Saturday be enforced and that the U.N. Security Council be willing to act on it next week, when the U.N. General Assembly holds its annual meeting in New York.

"The Security Council must be prepared to act next week," Kerry told reporters In Washington. "It is vital for the international community to stand up and speak out in the strongest possible terms about the importance of enforceable action to rid the world of Syria's chemical weapons."

Putin told a gathering of journalists and Russia experts in the Russian town of Valdai that he could not be 100 percent certain the plan for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons would succeed.

"But everything we have seen so far in recent days gives us confidence that this will happen," he said, adding, "I hope so."

Russia and the United States brokered the deal to put Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical arms stockpiles under international control to avoid possible U.S. military strikes that Washington said would be intended to punish Assad for a poison gas attack last month.

Under the U.S.-Russian deal, Assad must account for his chemical weapon stockpiles within a week and see them destroyed by the middle of next year.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - have been discussing a draft resolution this week that Western powers hope will make the deal legally binding.

But Russia, a key ally of Assad, is unhappy with the draft's references to possible punitive measures against Syria under Article 7 of the U.N. charter, which talks about U.N. authorization for sanctions and military force.

Diplomats say the resolution could come to a vote as early as this weekend or next week.


Assad said on Wednesday his government was willing to get rid of its chemical weapons but it would be a very complicated operation that would take about a year and cost about $1 billion.

"If the American administration is ready to pay this money and take the responsibility of bringing toxic materials to the United States, why don't they do it?" Assad said in an interview with Fox News.

Assad again denied his forces were responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, outside Damascus, on August 21. Putin also reiterated Russia's contention that the attack was staged by opponents of Assad.

The United States says the attack killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.

U.N. chemical investigators confirmed on Monday the use of sarin in a long-awaited report that the United States, Britain and France said proved government forces were responsible.

Logistics as to how the deal to destroy the chemical weapons would be implemented have been murky.

Russia and the United States are the only countries with industrial-scale capacity to handle mustard, VX, sarin or cyanide-armed munitions, but the import of chemical weapons is banned under U.S. law.

Russia has been destroying its own Soviet-era chemical weapons in line with an agreement with the United States and has seven facilities for the destruction of chemical weapons, according to information on Russian Munitions Agency website.

But Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that Russia had no current plans to destroy Syrian chemical weapons on its territory.

Asked whether Russia had such plans, Shoigu told Interfax news agency: "No. A decision needs to be taken for this."

"We have factories for the destruction of chemical weapons, but there is a big difference between 'ready' and 'willing'."

In a speech on Thursday, the head of NATO welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement and said individual NATO nations may agree to help implement the deal, but the 28-nation alliance itself was unlikely to play a role.

Speaking in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said it was essential for keeping momentum in the diplomatic and political process that the military option remained on the table.

The violence that has cost more than 100,000 lives in Syria in the past 2 1/2 years continued on Thursday.

Near the Turkish frontier, al Qaeda-linked fighters battled a rival Syrian rebel group for a second day after the militant Islamists stormed a nearby town and prompted Turkey to shut a border crossing.

Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed at least 14 members of Assad's minority Alawite sect in the central Syrian province of Homs, a Syrian opposition monitoring group said.

(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, Stephen Kalin in Beirut, Adrian Croft in Brussels and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Peter Cooney)