U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry started trying to line up allied support for a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014 that he negotiated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Speaking after a meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Kerry said the use of force remains an option if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad failed to comply with the plan. Kerry is set to hold talks tomorrow in Paris with his counterparts from France and the U.K., permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. He said he also may meet with ministers from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both backers of the rebel forces seeking to topple Assad.
Kerry and Lavrov reached agreement yesterday in Geneva on a framework for finding, securing and destroying Assad’s stocks of poison gas. The deal calls for early signs of progress, giving Assad one week to submit an inventory of his toxic weapons, and calls for initial inspections in Syria by November.
“We’ve been closely following and support your ongoing efforts to rid Syria of these chemical weapons,” Netanyahu told Kerry after the meeting. The U.S. top diplomat said the Obama administration was determined to hold Assad accountable. “The threat of force is real,” Kerry said. “We cannot have hollow words in the conduct of foreign affairs.”
The agreement between the U.S. and Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, calls for a UN Security Council resolution compelling Assad’s regime to adhere to its terms. Russia previously has used its veto in the Security Council to block UN condemnations of Assad during Syria’s 2 1/2-year civil war.
“The big question is, can it now be implemented?” Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an e-mail. “The early deadline for Syria to fully declare its chemical weapons stocks provides an early test of Syrian intent.”
The UN is preparing to release, as soon as tomorrow, an inspection team’s report on an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, a charge Assad has denied. The UN team wasn’t allowed under its mandate to assign responsibility for the attack.
Netanyahu, speaking before his meeting with Kerry, said the success of the agreement will be gauged by tangible results, a principle “that also applies to the international community’s diplomatic efforts to stop the nuclear arming of Iran.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC News aired today, said not punishing Assad with an attack shouldn’t encourage Iran to expect a similar response from his administration.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that -- the nuclear issue -- is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” he said. Iran, an ally of Assad, says its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes.
Obama has twice delayed possible U.S. military action in response to the Aug. 21 attack, most recently on Sept. 10, when the president said the U.S. would explore an offer from Russia for negotiations on removing Assad’s toxic armaments.
“If in fact this deal goes through, the biggest winner is common sense, because the Obama administration had no good option for dealing with chemical weapons,” Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. and Russia had been at odds about Syria and over Russia’s harboring of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, accused of exposing U.S. surveillance secrets.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency yesterday quoted Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi as saying his country welcomes “credible international initiatives,” without elaboration.
Syrian rebel leaders said they wouldn’t interfere with inspections, even as they criticized the accord. Questions about whether Assad will go along with the removal of chemical weapons, which the regime hadn’t acknowledged having until last week, have also led to some criticism from U.S. lawmakers.
Without a UN Security Council resolution authorizing force unless Assad complies, “this framework agreement is meaningless,” Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. “Assad will use the months and months afforded him to delay and deceive the world.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that an enforceable agreement to rid Syria of toxic arms “would be an even better outcome” than the goals of a threatened U.S. military strike by “not just deterring and degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capability, but eliminating it altogether.”
Kerry said yesterday that thorough inspections and verification of disarmament moves are feasible because Assad controls all the chemical weapons sites and can provide access to inspectors if he chooses.
The U.S. estimates that Syria has at least 45 weapons-related sites, about half of which contain significant quantities of chemical agents, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Kerry and Lavrov said they hoped to use the deal to revive stalled peace talks to end the fighting that’s killed more than 100,000 people. The two will meet this month with the UN’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to set a date for a peace conference in Geneva.
While Assad has agreed to take part, the Syrian opposition has insisted he step down as a condition for negotiations.
Stocks rallied and oil fell last week as the talks eased concern of a U.S. military strike. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDU) climbed 3 percent, the most since January. West Texas Intermediate crude dropped 2.2 percent, the most since July.
Kerry said the U.S. and Russia agreed on the size of Assad’s chemical arsenal, which may hinder possible efforts to hide it. However, U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues, have said neither country knows how large an arsenal Syria has amassed, nor where all of it is, in part because the Syrians keep moving it.
A State Department official, briefing reporters in Geneva, said many details have yet to be sorted out, including where the chemical weapons would be destroyed.
“Just by having inspectors on many sites, even if it’s not the majority of sites, even if there are hidden sites, that will contribute to” the goal of preventing another chemical attack, said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sept. 13 that the report by UN inspectors will confirm that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21. Syria and Russia have blamed anti-government “terrorists.”
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