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Is Push for Syria to Forfeit Chemical Arms a Stalling Tactic or Serious Move?

September 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And shortly before Gwen’s interview with the president, I spoke with Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin.

Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

Your government is talking publicly today about this proposal under which Syria would put its chemical weapons under international control. Tell us, how would that work and how quickly?

VITALY CHURKIN, Russian Ambassador to United Nations: Well, we’re respondent to what Secretary Kerry said today at a press conference in London, where he indicated that a military strike by the United States on Syria could be avoided if the Syrian chemical stockpile could be put under international control.

And we had the foreign minister of Syria, Mr. Moallem, in Moscow today, and the news of Mr. Kerry’s statement came after the talks, and were very promptly responded to by our foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who came up with this initiative that we will work with the government of Syria in order to achieve that international control, and, moreover, to move towards the destruction of the Syrian chemical stockpile, and making Syria a party to the Organization on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

And the Syrians have responded positively. So I think that, if we work together with the United States and with the United Nations — and, today, secretary-general of the United Nations made remarks very similar to the remarks of Minister Lavrov — I think we could accomplish that in a way which would prevent a major escalation of the Syrian crisis.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re seeing now a U.S. official quoted as saying what Secretary Kerry said was — quote — “rhetorical.”

You’re taking it as a serious proposal, though?

VITALY CHURKIN: Well, it’s a statement which was made by the secretary of state of the United States.

And then, you know, this subject was discussed not specifically tied to preventing sort of an American military strike, but it was discussed in one of the previous conversations — recent conversations between Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry.

So I think there is reason to believe that this is not something which was done completely extemporaneously. But, anyway, no matter how those statements came about, I think it’s important to grab the opportunity which is there, which may be there, in order to prevent the escalation of the Syrian crisis, which is going to be inevitable should those military strikes take place.

And, incidentally, that would also take care of one of the longstanding concern of Israel for their security, in case chemical weapons from Syria somehow spill over to the Israeli territories. So I think this is a very important initiative, which has been picked up by the Syrian government.

Our leverage with them sometimes does work, not always, but sometimes it does work. And let’s hope this is one of those situations where, again, we could work together with the United States on this, along with the preparation of the Geneva II conference which was initiated by Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov.

So I think we need to have yes for an answer from the United States. And we have had statements, as I mentioned, from Secretary General Ban of the United Nations which go in the same direction.

 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

VITALY CHURKIN: So, we have good opportunity to continue this triangular cooperation in terms of Geneva II.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What makes you think, Mr. Ambassador, that the Syrians are prepared to turn over control of those chemical weapons?

In that interview with Charlie Rose, President Assad did not even acknowledge they had chemical weapons, number one. And, number two, the reporting is they have spent years amassing these weapons. What makes you think they would give up that control?

VITALY CHURKIN: Well, they say they are accepting our initiative. And I haven’t seen yet President Assad’s interview.

And I understand that he has been repeating the longstanding line of the Syrians, who refuse to acknowledge their possession of chemical weapons, a mirror imaging, in this respect, the attitude of the Israelis to their nuclear stockpile. So there’s nothing surprising — surprising about his refusal to acknowledge that two days ago. But now we have a new reality which may be there after the statements by Secretary Kerry and foreign minister — initiative by Foreign Minister Lavrov.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — why should Americans not see this, Mr. Ambassador, as simply a stalling tactic? Why should the American government, the U.S. government see this as a serious move that could change the situation within a matter of days?

VITALY CHURKIN: Because it is a serious move.

And it is a response to what the secretary of state of the United States said. And, of course, it can be disregarded, or it can be somehow interpreted in a negative way, and the United States can go ahead and do this military strike, which would eliminate any chances for a political settlement, which could have catastrophic consequences for Syria, and which would make that war another American war, like Vietnam and Iraq used to be.

Among all this conversation about 60-to-90-days campaign, and then the United States returning to its shores and forgetting all about Syria, are not serious. In such situations, the China shop rule applies. You broke it, you bought it.

So, now it’s a Syrian conflict. After an American military strike, it’s going to become equally an American conflict. And there’s no way for the United States to walk away from it, especially in a situation when the United States, let us face, is pretty much isolated internationally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like you’re saying you believe an American strike could lead to just indescribable consequences?

VITALY CHURKIN: Absolutely.

I mean, in this situation, one doesn’t have to be a military expert to recognize that. You cannot calculate it. It’s not a computer game. You cannot calculate everything in advance. What American officials are saying, they are going to cripple the possibility for the Assad government to use its chemical stockpile.

We’re not quite clear what that means, but it may well be that it would entail the Syrian government losing control of its chemical stockpile, increasing the chance of its getting into the hands of the extremists which are all over the place in Syria, et cetera, et cetera, to say nothing of the likely increase in fighting, because the armed opposition groups, including al-Qaida-affiliated groups, are certainly going to take this opportunity of an American military strike to intensify their onslaughts, including the atrocities which they have been committing in front of the Internet cameras for the past months and a couple of years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s also the case, though, Mr. Ambassador, that Secretary Kerry has said any strike would be, in his words — quote — “unbelievably small.”

VITALY CHURKIN: Well, if — I don’t believe it’s possible.

I mean, the fact of it is going to be unbelievably big. And, of course, no matter how small or big it is, it’s going to be a violation of international law, because Syria, of course, has not undertook — undertaken an aggression against the United States.

There’s been no decision of the Security Council to use military force. I mean, these days, American officials recognize that the United States cannot be the world’s policemen. They need also come to the realization that the United States is no longer the world’s judge and jury.

They have come to their conclusion. A large part of the world does not share their conclusion. I might suspect that we are not going to be able to persuade the American officials that their conclusions are wrong. But, anyway, I think, even though we would expect that we would shed more light on this situation after we learn the results of the investigation which was carried out by U.N. inspectors in Syria of this use or reported use of chemical weapons in Guta, but the current initiative of the Russian Federation would allow the United States to avoid all the dramatic consequences which might be there, and which most likely are going to be there in case of the use of American force in Syria, and would help the United States avoid appropriating another nasty conflict in the Middle East, for which the United States will become responsible should there be a military strike by the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you, Mr. Ambassador. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, thank you.

VITALY CHURKIN: Thank you very much.