Russian President Vladimir Putin has received much of the credit for dissuading the United States from a military strike against Syria, in favour of a deal that will instead see the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hand over his chemical arsenal to the United Nations.
But his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, offered a reminder Tuesday of how fragile the new agreement is, and how quickly the possibility of confrontation might return. Interpretations of exactly what was agreed to last week in Geneva when Mr. Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to an accord over Syria now seem to depend on which side of the room someone was sitting on.
Speaking at a solemn-faced press conference after meeting his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Mr. Lavrov cast doubt on a UN report that laid out evidence suggesting Mr. al-Assad's forces were behind an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus. He repeated Moscow's conviction that Syrian rebels may have staged the attack in an effort to draw the international community into their country's civil war.
While the UN Security Council is preparing to debate a resolution, based on the Geneva agreement, that will set a timetable for the handover and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program, Mr. Lavrov said Russia won't allow the resolution to be backed by the threat of force.
That would seem to scupper a French-drafted resolution that calls for action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, should Mr. al-Assad be seen as not following through on his obligation to disarm. Russia is one of five countries that can veto any Security Council effort. That a section allows for Security Council resolutions to be enforced militarily.
"The resolution of the Security Council … will not be Chapter 7," Mr. Lavrov said bluntly as Mr. Fabius looked on. Instead, Mr. Lavrov said any violation of the agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons should later be referred back to the Security Council, for further debate and – perhaps – another resolution.
That's unlikely to satisfy U.S., French and British leaders, who insist the threat of force is necessary to ensure Mr. al-Assad fully complies with UN demands. "We are not bellicose, but we must remain vigilant because it is vigilance and firmness that enabled Syria to change its position and will ensure tomorrow that its commitments are kept," Mr. Fabius said in reply to Mr. Lavrov. China, the fifth permanent member of the Security Council, has thus far stood with Russia in blocking tough international action against Damascus.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added his voice Tuesday to those calling for a Chapter 7 resolution on Syria. "In reality, we need clear guidelines under Chapter 7," Mr. Ban said, adding that he would press the Security Council to take joint action on Syria. Mr. Ban referred to the Aug. 21 chemical attack as a "war crime."
The proposal drafted by France reportedly also includes a clause calling for the International Criminal Court to investigate the use of chemical weapons inside Syria.
Diplomats from the five permanent Security Council members met Tuesday in New York for initial discussions about the language of the resolution. The meeting broke up after an hour with only an agreement to speak again on Wednesday. It remained unclear when the full 15-member Security Council might be summoned for a vote.
The U.S.-Russian pact calls for Syria to reveal the extent of its chemical weapons program within a week of the passing of a UN resolution. Inspectors are to be allowed access to all sites by November, and the "complete elimination" of Syria's chemical arsenal is to be achieved by mid-2014. Mr. Kerry has said Russia also agreed in Geneva that any failure to comply by Mr. al-Assad would trigger "consequences."
Even without the diplomatic wrangling, the timetable seemed ambitious, given the difficulties associated with inspecting and dismantling a chemical weapons program in the midst of a civil war. More than 100,000 people have died since rebels – ranging from students and secular ex-Syrian army officers to jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaeda – took up arms against Mr. al-Assad more than two years ago.
The bloodshed has accelerated even as foreign powers have focused on diplomacy. Apparently emboldened by the decreasing likelihood of a U.S. strike, Syrian warplanes took to the skies in recent days for their first sorties since Aug. 21. They bombed rebel-held areas, aiding an offensive by regime forces in the suburbs of Damascus.
The fighting has repeatedly threatened to spill over Syria's borders. A car bomb Tuesday on the Syrian side of the main Bab al-Hawa crossing into Turkey killed at least seven people and injured 20. The attack came one day after Turkish fighter jet shot down a Syrian military helicopter that had crossed into Turkish airspace.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing is rebel-held and is a major supply conduit for anti-al-Assad rebels, as well an escape route for refugees. It has also been the scene of confrontations between the secular Free Syrian Army and hardline Islamist groups.