BEIRUT — The U.S. and France on Tuesday pushed for a tough United Nations resolution to ensure Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime turns over its chemical weapons stockpile, but Assad's ally Russia demanded the West take the threat of force off the table if Damascus fails to meet its promises. The diplomatic split threatened a deal that could avert American strikes against Syria.
Assad's government on Tuesday promised to cooperate fully with the Russian plan, which calls for Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control, for eventual destruction.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV that Syria would place its chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, "other countries" and the United Nations. He promised that his country would also declare its long secret chemical arsenal, stop producing such weapons and sign conventions against them.
Wary that Damascus is only seeking to avoid U.S. military action, Washington and France said they seek strong U.N. language to enforce the Russian plan. France said it would put forward a draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, making it enforceable with military action.
That met swift opposition from Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plan can only work if "the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his French counterpart Laurent Fabius that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, his ministry said in a statement.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in turn, said the U.S. rejects a Russian suggestion that the U.N. endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the Security Council president.
The U.S. has to have a full resolution — one that entails "consequences if games are played and somebody tries to undermine this," he said.
A State Department official said later that Kerry would travel to Switzerland this week to discuss the deal with Lavrov. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the mission publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the two diplomats would meet Thursday in Geneva.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council canceled plans for closed consultations on a Syria resolution Tuesday.
The developments threatened what had been growing momentum toward a plan that would allow the Obama administration to back away from military action. Domestic support for a strike is uncertain in the United States, even as President Barack Obama seeks Congress' backing for action — and there has been little international appetite to join forces against Assad.
The U.S. and its allies have insisted Assad must be punished for an alleged regime chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds outside Damascus. The Obama administration, France and others blame the regime, but Damascus says rebels — not its forces —were behind the attack. The U.S. has said more than 1,400 Syrians died; even conservative estimates from international organizations put the toll at several hundred.
Fabius said the resolution must have teeth to ensure the Russian plan is not "used as a diversion.