The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote Friday on a measure drafted by top U.S. and Russian diplomats that would identify and hold accountable those who use chemical weapons in Syria's protracted civil war.
The draft resolution was worked out Wednesday in a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The agreement falls far short of finding common ground between the U.S. and Russian strategies for ending the Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year. But the accountability resolution could represent a break in the impasse between Moscow and Washington over the conflict, in which they support opposite sides.
Lavrov and Kerry have met several times in recent weeks in unsuccessful efforts to collaborate on a peace plan for Syria, as well as a unified mission to contain Islamic State extremists who have seized huge areas of Syria and Iraq for their proclaimed "caliphate."
Kremlin support for the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Washington's insistence that the Syrian leader be replaced by a government of national unity as part of any peace deal have stymied agreement on how to end the war.
Moscow is a key Assad ally and a major supplier of the armaments his forces have used against an array of opposition militias trying to depose the autocratic president.
The Obama administration has been backing Syrian opposition forces trying to oust Assad, and Washington recently authorized U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against any fighters threatening allied rebel forces, including Assad loyalists who are also trying to drive out Islamic State fighters.
Lavrov called the shift in U.S. policy to a new willingness to engage Syrian government forces "counterproductive" at a meeting with Kerry this week in Doha, Qatar.
After Kerry and Lavrov met in the Malaysian capital on Wednesday night, the Russian envoy told journalists that they had agreed that Islamic State is a "common evil," but that their clashing views on the Assad government had thwarted a mutually acceptable strategy for containing the militant scourge.
"For now we don't have a joint approach on how specifically we can do it, given the standoff between various players on the ground, including armed units of the Syrian opposition," Lavrov said late Wednesday.
But word emerged Thursday, as the two diplomats briefed journalists on the ASEAN summit results, that they had agreed to build on their success in ridding Syria of its stockpile of banned chemical weapons two years ago by empowering a U.N.-affiliated watchdog agency to identify the users of chemicals in warfare.
Russian and U.S. officials agreed to deploy the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to remove and destroy Syria's banned chemical arsenal after an attack on Damascus suburbs in August 2013 killed hundreds, including dozens of children. The attack was widely suspected to have been committed by Assad's forces, but the OPCW agents were assigned only to confirm that chemicals had been used as weapons, not to identify which party to the conflict had used them.
There have been subsequent attacks in Syria involving chlorine gas, which is not on the list of banned chemicals because of its permitted industrial uses. But international law bans the use of any chemical compound as a weapon, and the agreement to pursue the perpetrators of such attacks in Syria was seen as something of a breakthrough in the often-conflicting Middle East policies in Moscow and Washington.
Kerry told journalists Thursday that he and Lavrov had worked out the draft resolution to put before the Security Council that would "create a process of accountability, which has been missing."
"What we are trying to do is get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use," Kerry said.
The final draft of the resolution, obtained by The Associated Press at U.N. headquarters in New York, calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to submit recommendations for a joint OPCW-U.N. investigative mission within 20 days of Friday's vote.
The resolution, if approved as expected, would empower the joint investigative force to identify "perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical," the AP said, quoting from the language of the draft. Penalties for those found responsible have not yet been defined.
In addition to the five permanent member states on the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - the 15-nation body includes rotating member states Angola, Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Spain and Venezuela.
Although the current council makeup includes a broad range of ideologies and regional interests, the agreed text of the resolution on accountability between often adversarial Russia and the United States was expected to draw approval from the rest of the policymaking arm of the world body.