PARIS – France announced Tuesday it will put forward a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to ultimately dismantle its chemical weapons program, seizing on a diplomatic opening from Syrian ally Russia amid Western threats of force against President Bashar Assad's regime.
France, a permanent member of the 15-nation council, will start the resolution process on Tuesday under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters at a quickly arranged news conference.
The proposal would also condemn a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 that Western powers allege was carried out by Assad's regime — a claim he has denied.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could resolve the crisis by surrendering control of his chemical arsenal to the international community. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded by promising to push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly, to avert U.S. strikes.
Syria quickly welcomed the Russian proposal — though its level of commitment isn't fully clear — and China too expressed support.
Fabius said the French resolution, based on five points, would demand that Syria bring fully to light its chemical weapons program, place it under international control, and dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry "very serious consequences." The resolution would also seek to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Aug. 21 attack that killed hundreds.
Fabius said he expected a "nearly immediate" commitment from Syria. He said Russia had information about Damascus' chemical weapons stockpile, and expressed hope that this time a tough resolution on Syria would not be blocked — an allusion to a string of efforts led by Western powers at the U.N. body in recent months that were blocked by Russia and China.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the Russian proposal: "As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, quoted in an interview published Tuesday in Die Zeit newspaper, called the proposal a "good suggestion" but said "credible action ... not only words" was needed.
With its initiative at the United Nations, France is eager to seize on Russia's "overture," Fabius said, while expressing caution that French authorities "don't want to fall into a trap" that could allow Assad's regime to skirt accountability.
"We do not want this to be used as a diversion," Fabius said. "It is by accepting these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday."
Earlier, on French radio Europe-1, Fabius trumpeted Western pressure for leading to a "turnaround" in Russia's position.
"At first the Russians denied there was a chemical weapons stockpile in Syria. Then, they denied a chemical attack. So, they have changed — very good!" he said.
"Why did the Russians change? I think there are two main reasons," Fabius added. "One is that our firmness is paying off, and secondly, they've realized the proof of chemical weapons is increasingly overwhelming."
Fabius also warned that finding and destroying "more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons" would be very difficult and would require international verification amid Syria's civil war. He reiterated France's position that Assad must leave power: "We can't imagine that someone who was responsible for 110,000 dead, it is said, can stay in power forever."
Jamey Keaten in Paris, David Rising in Berlin and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.