By Stephanie Nebehay and Louis Charbonneau
GENEVA/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Diplomatic efforts to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control intensified on Wednesday as Russia warned that a U.S. strike could unleash extremist attacks and carry the country’s bitter civil war beyond Syria’s borders.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone, the State Department said, one day before they meet in Geneva to try to agree on a strategy to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The five permanent veto-wielding powers of the U.N. Security Council met in New York to discuss plans to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control – averting a threatened U.S. military strike – as Britain, France and the United States talked about drafting a resolution.
The U.N. ambassadors of China and Russia as well as Britain, France and the United States met for about half an hour at the Russian U.N. mission. They declined comment as they left.
In a reminder of the mounting atrocities in Syria, a report by a U.N. commission of inquiry documented eight mass killings, attributing all but one to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. It said Assad’s forces almost certainly committed two massacres in May that killed up to 450 civilians.
An initial French draft Security Council resolution called for delivering an ultimatum to Assad’s government to give up its chemical weapons arsenal or face punitive measures.
But underscoring the diplomatic gulf over military action, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against a U.S. strike on Syria, saying such action risked escalating the conflict beyond that country and unleashing terrorist attacks.
Putin, writing in the New York Times, said there were “few champions of democracy” in the 2-1/2-year-old civil war in Syria, “but there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all types battling the government.
Putin cautioned against taking military action without U.N. Security Council authorization, saying, “We must stop using the language of force.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on Tuesday that he had asked Congress to put off a vote on his request to authorize military action in Syria to let diplomacy play out, although the threat was still needed to ensure Syria complies.
Obama cited “encouraging signs” in part because of the U.S. threat of military action to punish Assad for what the United States and other Western powers say was the Syrian government’s use of poison gas to kill 1,400 civilians in Damascus on August 21. Assad’s government blames the attack on the rebel forces.
On Tuesday, Syria accepted a Russian proposal to surrender its chemical weapons to international control to try to win a possible reprieve from a U.S. military strike.
Russia has been Assad’s most powerful backer during the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011, delivering arms and – with China – blocking three U.N. resolutions meant to pressure Assad.
“We are doing the responsible thing here, which is testing the potential there for success,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, referring to the diplomatic push. “I suspect this will take some time.
Diplomats said there have been other draft resolutions under discussion and an attempt was being made to come up with common language agreeable to Britain, France and the United States, whose envoys met separately on the issue.
Kerry also planned to meet U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi while in Geneva, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. At least two days of U.S.-Russian talks are expected there, possibly more, she said.
U.S. lawmakers said the Senate could start voting as soon as next week on a resolution to authorize military force if efforts to find a diplomatic solution fail. Obama has struggled to find support in Congress for the plan.
WAR CRIMES REPORT
The U.N. report released in Geneva, largely covering incidents between May and July, said government and rebel fighters committed war crimes including murder, hostage-taking and shelling of civilians. It accused forces loyal to Assad of bombing schools and hospitals, and rebels of carrying out summary executions.
The commission, led by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, urged the U.N. Security Council to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The May killings in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa, two pockets of rebel sympathizers surrounded by villages loyal to Assad on the outskirts of the town of Banias, did not involve fighting with rebels and appeared designed to send a message of deterrence.
In Baida, the report said between 150 and 250 civilians were allegedly killed, including 30 women, apparently executed, found in one house. It said armed rebels were not then active in the area. It gave a figure of 150 to 200 dead in Ras al-Nabaa.
The Syria conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad and descended into a civil war in which mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are pitted against Assad’s forces, who are backed by Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Hezbollah.
In Moscow, Russia’s parliament urged the United States not to strike Syria, saying in a unanimous declaration that military action could be a “crime against the Syrian people.”
The non-binding declaration by the State Duma, the lower chamber dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, echoed the vociferous opposition by President Vladimir Putin to U.S. military action.
The Duma expressed support for Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control, which Putin said on Tuesday would only succeed if the United States and its allies abandoned plans for possible military action.
Crude oil prices edged up in New York as investors worried about whether diplomatic efforts on Syria would avert military action that could disrupt oil supplies, while U.S. stocks closed higher amid the diplomatic push.
The violence continued inside Syria. Fighters from an al Qaeda-linked rebel group killed 12 members of the minority Alawite sect in central Syria after seizing their village, an opposition monitoring group said.
Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam and have been increasingly targeted by radical fighters among the Sunni-dominated opposition in the revolt against Assad, himself an Alawite.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked the United States and Russia to address obstacles to delivering aid in Syria at their talks on Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept up pressure for action, saying Syria must be stripped of its chemical weapons and that the international community must make sure those who use weapons of mass destruction pay a price.
Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a “crime against humanity” by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria’s ally Iran, which is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.
“The message that is received in Syria will be received loudly in Iran,” Netanyahu said.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that a U.S. promise to pursue diplomacy to remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria was “serious and not a game with the media,” the state news agency IRNA reported.