PARIS/AMMAN - Syria accepted a Russian proposal yesterday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from United States 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 came about following off-the-cuff remarks by the US secretary of state, marks a sudden reversal after weeks in which the West appeared headed towards intervention in the 21/2-year-old war.
France said it would put forward a United Nations Security Council draft resolution for Syria to give up its stockpiles of chemical arms, threatening "extremely serious" consequences if Syria violates the resolution's 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 offers 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 that Damascus has agreed to the Russian initiative as it would "remove the grounds for American aggression".
While the diplomatic wrangling was under way in far-flung capitals, Mr Assad's warplanes bombed rebellious districts of Damascus yesterday for the first time since the Aug 21 poison-gas attacks. Rebels said the air strikes were a demonstration that the government now believed the West had lost its nerve.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to ensure that the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Mr Assad is uncooperative.
US Republican Senator John McCain said lawmakers were working on new wording for a congressional resolution to ensure "strict timelines and guidelines that would have to be met" for Mr Assad to give up chemical arms.