The U.S. and Russia struck a deal demanding the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, with the U.S. saying it maintained a military option to ensure compliance.
The agreement calls for initial inspections in Syria, which is engulfed in a civil war, by November and gives President Bashar al-Assad a week to provide an inventory of the weapons he didn’t acknowledge having until this week. United Nations approval would also be needed to impose sanctions.
“There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters today in Geneva at a joint briefing with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, after three days of negotiations in the city. President Barack Obama, who twice delayed possible U.S. military intervention, “always retains the right” to use force, Kerry said.
The diplomats said they hoped to use the deal to revive a stalled peace process to end fighting that has killed more than 100,000 people in the past 2 1/2 years. Kerry and Lavrov will meet this month with the UN’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, during the UN General Assembly to set a date for a conference. While Assad has agreed to take part, the Syrian opposition has insisted he step down as a condition for negotiations.
Today’s breakthrough capped five days of intensive talks following Kerry’s remark that while Assad’s handover of his chemical weapons could avert a strike, it “can’t be done, obviously.” Russia seized on the comment, putting into the public domain what Kerry said had been the topic of private talks with Lavrov and between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Western intelligence services blame Assad for one of the most gruesome incidents in the civil war, a chemical attack east of Damascus on Aug. 21 that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children. Russia blames the rebels. Today’s statement didn’t identify the culprit.
Stocks rallied and oil fell this week as the talks damped concern of U.S. military intervention. The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 3 percent, the most since January. West Texas Intermediate crude dropped 2.2 percent, the most since July.
Kerry plans to go to Paris on Sept. 16 for talks with the British, French and Saudi foreign ministers, following a stop tomorrow in Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Syrian rebels said they wouldn’t interfere with the inspections, as they criticized the U.S.-Russian accord. Kerry said since the regime controls the weapons sites, he expected that inspectors would have unfettered access.
Kerry said the U.S. and Russia agreed on the size of Assad’s chemical arsenal, which may hinder possible efforts to hide it. They didn’t provide the quantity of the weapons involved. Previously, Kerry put the stockpile at 1,000 metric tons, while Russia has used a lower figure.
“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.
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. The U.S. and Russia haven’t agreed on how many weapons sites Syria has and the U.S. has no assurance that Syria will accept the disarmament plan, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. The official also declined to say whether the target dates for the disarmament work were realistic, saying only that they are possible.
France, which has committed to join the U.S. in a bombardment of Syria, saw the deal as a “significant step,” according to a statement by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
In Washington yesterday, U.S. officials anticipating an accord indicated a lengthening timeline for action. 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. Even so, they portrayed that outcome as better than if the U.S. took military action, which can’t destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal.
“There is nothing said about the use of force or any automatic sanctions,” Lavrov said today. “Any violations must be indisputably proved in the UN Security Council.” Russia has a veto on the council.
Assad and Russia have exploited Obama’s focus on ridding the country of chemical weapons while seeking to keep the U.S. out of the civil war.
In New York, UN 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. Syria and Russia have blamed anti-government “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, he has “committed many crimes against humanity” and will be held accountable when the conflict is over.
In a statement today, Ban welcomed the deal. He expressed his “fervent hope that the agreement will, first, prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria and, second, help pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people.”