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Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from US strikes, while its warplanes bombed rebel positions in Damascus for the first time since the West threatened military action.
The Russian diplomatic initiative, which apparently emerged from off-the-cuff remarks by the US secretary of state, marks a sudden reversal after weeks in which the West appeared finally headed towards intervention in a two-and-a-half year old war.
France said it would put forward a UN Security Council draft resolution for Syria to give up its stockpiles of chemical arms, threatening “extremely serious” consequences if Syria violates its conditions.
Syria’s rebels reacted with deep dismay to the proposal, which would halt Western military action to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb last month.
US President Barack Obama, for whom the proposal provides a way out of ordering unpopular strikes days before contentious Congressional votes, said it could be a “breakthrough”.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem, visiting Moscow, as saying Damascus had agreed to the Russian initiative because it would “remove the grounds for American aggression”.
While the diplomatic wrangling was under way in far-flung capitals, Assad’s warplanes bombed rebellious districts of Damascus on Tuesday for the first time since the August 21 poison gas attacks. Rebels said the air strikes were a demonstration that the government now believed the West had lost its nerve.
“By sending the planes back, the regime is sending the message that it no longer feels international pressure,” activist Wasim al-Ahmad said from Mouadamiya, one of the districts of the capital hit by the chemical attack.
The war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes, and threatens to spread violence across the West Asia.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative.
The Russian proposal makes it easier for members of the US Congress to vote to authorise action as part of a diplomatic initiative, without it leading directly to missile strikes.
Republican Senator John McCain, a leading hawk, said lawmakers were working on new wording of a Congressional resolution to ensure “strict timelines and guidelines that would have to be met” for Assad to give up chemical arms.
If Syria gives up chemical weapons, a military strike would