Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with French President Francois Hollande and his counterparts from France and the U.K. to build support for a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
Kerry plans also to meet ministers from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both backers of the rebel forces seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Paris discussions come as the United Nations prepares to release, as early as today, an inspection team’s report on a chemical weapons attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
Speaking after a meeting yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Kerry said the use of force remains an option if Assad fails to comply with the plan. Kerry negotiated the accord with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The agreement establishes a framework for finding, securing and destroying Assad’s stocks of poison gas. The deal calls for early signs of progress, giving Assad a week to submit an inventory of his toxic weapons, with 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.
“We welcome these agreements,” Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar said yesterday, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. “On the one hand they help Syrians get out of the crisis and on the other, they prevent war against Syria, removing the pretext for those who wanted to wage it.” Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said that his government will deal with the agreement with “honesty and transparency,” the state-run Sana news agency reported.
“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.”
Assad has denied his forces carried out an Aug. 21 gas attack outside Damascus. The UN team isn’t allowed under its mandate to assign responsibility.
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.”
President Barack Obama, in an ABC News interview that aired yesterday, said the Syrian plan doesn’t mean the U.S. wouldn’t take military action against Iran.
“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.
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 has said 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.
West Texas Intermediate crude fell for a second day on signs that the threat of imminent military strikes against Syria is receding. Oil for October delivery slid as much as $1.73 to $106.48 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gold for immediate delivery declined 0.9 percent to $1,314.61 an ounce by 10:42 a.m. in London.
Kerry said the U.S. and Russia agreed on the size of Assad’s chemical arsenal. 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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