Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. isn’t softening its opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by making a deal that envisions his cooperation in securing and eliminating Syrian chemical weapons over the next nine months.
Speaking to reporters in Paris shortly before a United Nations report confirmed the use in Syria of the nerve agent sarin, Kerry said yesterday that there’s no conflict between sending international chemical-weapons experts to work with Assad’s regime and the “strategic goal” of ending his rule.
The deal, which calls for Syria to eliminate its chemical arsenal by mid-2014, has been criticized by Republican Senator John McCain as raising the possibility that Assad “is now our negotiating partner, and that he can go on slaughtering innocent civilians.” The Arizona Republican favors U.S. military strikes.
“Nothing in what we have done is meant to offer any notion to Assad that there’s some legitimacy to his process, that he has some extended period as a leader, so-called,” Kerry said. “We remain committed to the opposition and committed to the Geneva process, which calls for a transition government. That’s our end strategic goal.”
The U.S.-Russian deal reached in Geneva Sept. 14, which lifted the threat of imminent U.S. military strikes, doesn’t constrain Assad’s use of conventional weapons, including artillery and aircraft, which are responsible for most of the more than 100,000 deaths in the 2 1/2-year-old civil war.
Russia, Syria’s longtime ally and arms supplier, may benefit from an agreement giving Assad time to strengthen his position with the help of Russian arms and fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
“It’s not that the Russians will be duplicitous,” Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, said in an interview. “If they make a commitment, more often than not they will keep it. The intent of their commitments is the issue.”
Kerry discussed the U.S.-Russia deal with his counterparts from France and the U.K. hours before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made public yesterday the report of a UN inspection team. It found “clear and convincing evidence” that sarin was used in an Aug. 21 attack near Syria’s capital of Damascus. At least 29 of 34 blood samples and 14 of 15 urine samples tested positive for sarin exposure, the report said.
While the inspectors provided detailed independent evidence of sarin use, their UN mandate didn’t extend to placing responsibility for the war crime, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war.
Even so, the scientists’ documentation of the delivery by surface-to-surface rockets points to the government rather than its lesser-armed opposition, U.S., U.K. and French envoys to the UN told reporters after the council was briefed by Ban and Ake Sellstrom, the head of the inspection team that went to Syria.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador, said the report’s technical details make “clear only the regime could have carried out” the attack, which the U.S. says killed at least 1,400 people, including 400 children. The trajectory of the rockets and their penetration into buildings showed they were shot with “great precision” by Assad’s forces, said Alexis Lamek, the French deputy envoy to the UN.
Their Russian counterpart, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, said his council colleagues were jumping to conclusions and more experts need to take time to review the evidence.
The waning likelihood of U.S. military action has led to lower oil prices. West Texas Intermediate crude fell to a three-week low yesterday. WTI crude for October delivery decreased $1.62 to $106.59 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the lowest settlement since Aug. 26.
“The last few weeks, the market has been in a Syria-headline-driven bubble,” said Stephen Schork, president of the Schork Group Inc., an energy advisory company in Villanova, Pennsylvania. “Now that the talk has gone from hawkish to dovish, the Syria premium is getting excised from the market.”
The U.S., France and the U.K. are pushing for a tough UN resolution requiring compliance, with Kerry and his counterparts insisting that the Security Council maintain the threat of an armed response if Syria backslides on the accord. Syria will conduct itself with “honesty and transparency,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said, according to the state-run Sana news agency.
France insists that “all options must remain on the table if declarations are not followed up with acts on the ground,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday following his meeting with Kerry and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The Security Council won’t vote on a resolution before the Geneva accord is reviewed by the executive council of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body that administers the Chemical Weapons Convention banning such arms, Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K. envoy to the UN, told reporters in New York. The organization may do that this week, he said.
Rebels fighting for regime change criticized the accord as conceding too much to Assad, who inherited control of Syria in 2000 when his father died after 29 years in power. One question is whether the deal leads Assad to believe he can remain in power at least until elections due next year, when he could try to show a mandate in elections he would control or try to set up a successor to protect the regime.
McCain said in a Sept. 14 statement joined by Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, that treating Assad as “our negotiating partner” would be “morally and strategically indefensible.”
In Paris, Fabius said there “is no contradiction at all” between the two goals asserted by Kerry. Losing chemical weapons will weaken Assad and encourage his government to participate in negotiations for a political transition, Fabius said.
“We understand that removing the chemical weapons still leaves him with artillery and airplanes and he uses them indiscriminately against his people,” Kerry said. “We are going to do everything in our power to continue to push towards the political resolution that is so critical to ending that violence.”
While expressing support for the opposition, Kerry, Fabius and Hague didn’t commit to stepping up arms deliveries. President Barack Obama issued a directive yesterday clearing the way for vetted rebel groups and international aid organizations to get equipment and training to defend against chemical weapons.
In Saudi Arabia, which has taken the lead in sending arms to the rebels, the government called for increased “international support for the Syrian opposition,” according to a cabinet statement issued though the official Saudi Press Agency. The Saudis blamed Syrian “intransigence” for strengthening “extremist movements” in the country that threaten regional and international security.
Diplomats will try at the UN General Assembly later this month to set a date for an intra-Syrian peace congress. Efforts to get Assad and the opposition talking have failed since world powers met in Geneva in June 2012.
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