The U.S. may accept a United Nations Security Council resolution that stops short of authorizing military action for Syrian violations of a chemical-weapons deal, according to U.S. officials.
The move would overcome objections from Russia and contribute to talks in Geneva, which resume today, and New York on a Syrian disarmament accord. A resolution acceptable to the U.S. could impose other consequences for Syrian violations, including economic sanctions and a provision for the council to revisit military authorization, said the officials, who asked not to be identified in briefing reporters.
Such a resolution wouldn’t foreclose unilateral U.S. military strikes, as President Barack Obama threatened after what his administration said was an Aug. 21 attack by the Syrian regime with the nerve agent sarin that killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, near Damascus.
“The use of chemical weapons that we saw in Syria was a criminal act,” Obama said yesterday. “It is absolutely important for the international community to respond in not only deterring repeated use of chemical weapons but hopefully getting those chemical weapons outside of Syria.”
An agreement on securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons must be “verifiable and enforceable,” Obama said, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reported “constructive conversations” in Geneva with his Russian counterpart.
Obama, who put his threat of military action against Syria on hold this week, said he hopes that talks between Kerry and Lavrov will “bear fruit.” He commented at the end of a meeting at the White House with Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, one of the Persian Gulf nations sending arms to Syrian rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The Geneva talks will continue for a third day today because Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are addressing “some serious stuff,” Russian spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in Geneva.
U.S. and Russian experts made progress narrowing the gap between their estimates about the size of Syria’s chemical arsenal, according to a U.S. official in Geneva. Syria didn’t officially acknowledge it has such weapons until this week.
Kerry has put the stockpile at 1,000 metric tons, while Russia has used a lower figure. Consensus on the size of the arsenal is necessary to ensure that Assad doesn’t hide some of his weapons from international inspectors.
Kerry yesterday added plans to go to Paris on Sept. 16 for meetings with the British, French and Saudi foreign ministers, following a stop the previous day in Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Agreement in Geneva on an approach to securing the weapons would shift the focus to the UN for Security Council action to mandate implementation.
In Washington, the U.S. officials indicated a lengthening timeline for action that extends for months under a potential accord. Syria is unlikely to embarrass its main ally, Russia, by conducting further chemical attacks in the meantime, the officials said.
It may take several weeks to pass a UN Security Council resolution embodying a disarmament plan and then months to see progress in bringing Syria’s chemical arms under international control to be destroyed, according to the officials. Even so, they portrayed that outcome as better than if the U.S. took military action, which couldn’t destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.
The current round of diplomacy was initiated by Russia after a Sept. 9 comment in London by Kerry that Assad could avert a threatened U.S. attack by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” While Kerry added immediately that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” the idea took on a life of its own.
In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said yesterday that a report by UN inspectors will confirm that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 in an opposition-controlled area near Damascus. The UN team wasn’t allowed under its mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, and Syria and Russia have blamed anti-regime “terrorists.”
While it’s up to the Syrian people to decide whether to oust Assad, Ban said at a UN development forum in New York, the regime’s leader has “committed many crimes against humanity” and will be held accountable when the conflict is over.
Looking beyond the immediate focus on efforts to turn over Syria’s chemical arsenal to international control, Kerry and Lavrov also discussed yesterday prospects for convening a long-proposed peace conference on Syria.
West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery slid 39 cents, or 0.4 percent, to settle at $108.21 a barrel yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices declined 2.1 percent this week, the most since the five days ended July 26.
Obama has delayed possible U.S. military action twice: first, on Aug. 31, to consult Congress, and then on Sept. 10 to take up Russia’s proposal for international oversight of Syria’s chemicals arsenal.
Assad and Russia, Syria’s principal great-power ally since the 1970s, have exploited Obama’s focus on ridding the country of chemical weapons while seeking to keep the U.S. out of the civil war.
The goal is to “design a road that makes sure this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical,” Lavrov said of the chemical weapons talks.
Assad appeared on Russian television on Sept. 12 to announce that Syria would sign an international protocol known as the Chemical Weapons Convention banning chemical weapons and to warn the U.S. that the solution to the strife wouldn’t be a “one-way street.” Assad said the U.S. must forswear any military strike and cease arming the rebel “terrorists” fighting to overthrow his regime.
The U.S. will “retain the military option and we will maintain our military readiness while the Geneva process is ongoing,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters yesterday in Washington. Earlier this week, Kerry called Syrian opposition leaders to say they will continue to have U.S. support.
France, the main U.S. ally in any military operation, has pressed for a strongly worded UN Security Council resolution to govern Syria’s behavior, including a military-action trigger
The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body that administers the convention, said in a statement yesterday that Syria’s application to join the accord and to obtain technical assistance is being reviewed. At the UN on Sept. 12, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said his country now considers itself bound by the accord as it undertakes the process necessary to become the 190th signatory nation.
U.S.-Russian talks over chemical weapons were entwined with a broader diplomatic push to end the hostilities by bringing Assad and the opposition to the negotiating table.
In that effort, Kerry and Lavrov met yesterday with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The prospects for a Geneva peace conference “obviously depend” on whether current talks to have Syria surrender control of its chemical weapons succeed, Kerry told reporters.
Putting together intra-Syrian peace talks is “extremely important,” Brahimi said. Efforts to get Assad and the opposition talking have failed since world powers met in Geneva in June 2012.
The U.S. should use talks on weapons with Russia and Syria to help forge a political solution, Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and Israel, said yesterday in an interview at Bloomberg’s Houston office.
For that to work, the administration should support moderate elements of the opposition forces, level the playing field against Assad’s military advantages and ensure that military strikes remain on the table to boost the incentives for discussions, said Djerejian, founder director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
“There’s no military solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said. ‘There’s not a military solution, there’s only a political solution. The task of diplomacy is how to get to that political solution.’’