UN Security Council members edged closer Thursday to a resolution reinforcing a US-Russian deal under which President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime will hand over its chemical weapons.
On the ground, meanwhile, growing concerns that the uprising against Assad is taking on an increasingly extremist bent were highlighted by news that Islamists had desecrated two churches.
The US-Russia agreement put on hold threatened military action by the United States and France in response to an August 21 chemical attack which US intelligence says killed more than 1,400 people in suburban Damascus.
In New York, envoys from among the Security Council’s five permanent members said progress has been made toward agreeing on a resolution, but that some points still needed hammering out.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius without elaborating that “France’s demands have been met to this point.”
While acknowledging there are still “some issues to clarify,” he said talks “have progressed overall” and that he hoped for a resolution “soon.”
France has been seeking a reference to the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, which can authorise the use of military force.
Diplomats say the resolution will not threaten force or sanctions but instead mention the possibility of future action if Syria does not comply.
Russia, the main ally of Assad, has resisted references to Chapter VII, calling it a pretext for war.
France has also demanded accountability for crimes in Syria and language calling the use of chemical weapons an attack on international security, which would give the Security Council power to act.
“On these three points things have moved forward,” Fabius said.
Meanwhile, a senior State Department official told AFP “we’re making progress but we’re not done yet,” while a Russian diplomat said “discussions were not finished on certain essential points.”
Russian and US envoys are currently fine-tuning the resolution, which both sides want to bring to the Security Council, but they appear to have hit a hurdle on what kind of sanctions would be slapped on Syria if fails to comply.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed on the need for a binding resolution, a US official said, but it was unclear whether Beijing would throw its weight behind the language of the resolution currently being drafted.
Kerry and Wang “were in strong agreement” on the need to act quickly for “a mandatory and binding UN Security Council resolution,” the official said.
China and Russia have previously used their veto powers as permanent members to block three Security Council resolutions sanctioning Assad.
Assad told Venezuelan television station Telesur in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that he saw “no obstacles” to the deal under which Damascus will relinquish its chemical arms.
He said Damascus had begun to send the required details of its chemical arsenal to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which is overseeing the deal, and that OPCW inspectors were expected in Syria.
“Experts will come to Syria in the coming period to look into the status of these weapons,” he said.
“As the Syrian government, there are no serious obstacles.
“But there is always the possibility that the terrorists will obstruct the work of the experts by preventing them from accessing certain places,” using the regime’s term for rebels.
Addressing those concerns, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow was willing to join international efforts to safeguard the weapons during their destruction.
“When the process of eliminating the chemical weapons reaches its active phase, it will be necessary to provide for the safety of the sites where (the weapons) will be destroyed,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
Some Western experts have suggested moving at least a part of the dangerous cache abroad so that it can be destroyed in relative safety.
But Ryabkov stressed that Russia was not willing to accept any of the estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons believed to be stored in Syria.
On the ground, the team of UN experts led by Swede Ake Sellstrom was in Syria for further investigations into chemical weapons use, seeking to reach up to 14 sites where allegations of chemical weapons use have been made.
“This will be a very quick mission; they will only be in Syria a few days,” a UN official in New York said, without disclosing their movements for security reasons.
Meanwhile, fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant set fire to statues and crosses inside two churches in the northern city of Raqa and destroyed a cross on a church clock tower, replacing it with their flag, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The London-based Observatory denounced these attacks “against the freedom of religion, which are an assault on the Syrian revolution.”
And an Iraqi woman was killed and three others wounded when a mortar round hit Baghdad’s consulate in Damascus, a diplomat said.