The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a breakthrough agreement to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The council voted 15-0 last night to adopt a resolution drafted by the U.S., the U.K. and France in response to an Aug. 21 poison gas attack near Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people. The resolution lacks immediate consequences if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fails to comply and it doesn’t assign blame for the attack, which U.S., U.K. and French officials attribute to Assad’s regime.
Russia, a Syrian ally, has said rebels were responsible for the attack and blocked tougher wording in the resolution. Russian vetoes of previous UN attempts to sanction Assad made last night’s vote the first diplomatic breakthrough at the UN since Syria’s civil war began 2 1/2 years ago.
“For many months, I have said that the confirmed use of chemical weapons in Syria required a firm, united and decisive response,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters after the session. “Tonight, the international community has delivered.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Syria must “give unfettered access” to its chemical-weapons stockpile and will face repercussions if it fails to comply. Those responsible for the use of such munitions will be punished, he said.
“This resolution makes clear that those responsible for this heinous act must be held accountable,” Kerry told the Security Council after the vote. “We are here because actions have consequences and now, should the regime fail to act, there will be consequences.”
As a next step, Ban said the UN will seek to convene peace talks by mid-November between Assad’s government and opposition representatives.
U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague said Syria also must provide “unfettered access” to humanitarian relief efforts seeking to aid civilians suffering from the impact of war.
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s UN ambassador, told reporters after the vote that his government is “on board” and committed to helping chemical-weapons inspectors and ensuring their safety. Syria is “fully committed” to peace talks, Jaafari said.
The Security Council voted after the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body in The Hague that monitors compliance with a global treaty banning the munitions, adopted a blueprint to verify, remove, and destroy Assad’s arsenal of sarin and other chemical weapons by mid-2014.
The chemical weapons organization’s 41-nation executive council spent almost two weeks in closed-door discussions as the U.S., its allies and Russia debated the text of the UN resolution. A U.S. official who spoke on condition of not being identified said it was crucial for the Netherlands-based group’s plan to be complete before the Security Council vote because the two documents complement each other.
The organization in The Hague said its executive council agreed on an “accelerated program” for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons and related material and will begin inspections in Syria by Oct. 1.
“This decision sends an unmistakable message that the international community is coming together to work for peace in Syria, beginning with the elimination of chemical weapons in that country,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement.
One complication emerged even before last night’s vote, when Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced on Sept. 26 that while Moscow is willing to help guard chemical-weapons sites in Syria, it won’t take custody of Syria’s munitions, the state-run RIA news agency reported.
Only Russia and the U.S. have the industrial-scale capacity to store and incinerate chemical weapons safely. Since the U.S. bans importing and transporting such munitions, Russia’s announcement means the inspectors will have to work inside Syria amid the civil war there.
“It is hard to imagine chemical-weapons inspectors, protected by Russian or other troops, engaging in the complicated task of destroying the stockpiles of chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war,” William Keylor, who teaches international relations at Boston University, said by e-mail. “If the inspectors or their protectors come under fire from either side, what will the response of the international community be?”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Syria’s cooperation “must be unconditional and fully transparent.”
“This resolution is not our final goal, but only a first step,” Fabius said, according to an English translation of his remarks to the Security Council. “We must now implement it. One cannot trust a regime, which, until recently, denied possessing such weapons.”
In Congress, lawmakers expressed skepticism about Syria’s and Russia’s commitment to the deal.
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said the UN accord doesn’t change the reality on the ground and fails to include a credible threat of force.
“This resolution is another triumph of hope over reality,” McCain and Graham said in a statement. “It contains no meaningful or immediate enforcement mechanisms, let alone a threat of the use of force for the Assad regime’s noncompliance. The whole question of enforcement has been deferred.”
Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern before the vote that the focus has shifted from ending “the barbarism and wanton violence of the Assad regime” to removing one method it uses to attack its own people.
“A red light for one form of weapons does not mean a green light for others,” Ban said. This is not a license to kill with conventional weapons. All the violence must stop. All the guns must fall silent.”
At a news briefing in New York earlier yesterday, Ahmad al-Jarba, a Syrian opposition leader, said the chemical-weapons accord won’t end the suffering in Syria.
The UN action follows two weeks of whirlwind diplomacy after Russia and the U.S. reached an agreement in Geneva to avert an American military strike against Syria if Assad agreed to relinquish his poison-gas arsenal.
“Our original objective was to degrade and deter Syria’s chemical-weapons capability,” and a U.S. attack “could have achieved that,” Kerry said. “Tonight’s resolution accomplishes even more,” by moving to eliminate “one of the largest chemical-weapons stockpiles on earth.”
The UN resolution states that Syria “shall not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to other states or non-state actors.”
If Syria doesn’t comply or participates in “unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons,” or if there is “any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Security Council can move to “impose measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.”
The Security Council then would discuss alleged violations, with individual members able to present their own intelligence on the event. Permanent members, such as Russia, can veto any final decision.
The charter’s Chapter 7 allows the UN to take action, including the use of force, in response to acts of aggression or threats against peace.
“The language of the resolution is less important than Russia’s willingness to make Assad comply,” Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said by e-mail. “The whole deal still pivots on Moscow’s commitment to making it work.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the resolution “does not allow for any automatic use of force or measures of enforcement” for compliance failures by Syria. He said the Security Council would have to “carefully” consider any decisions on enforcement.
U.S. officials say that President Barack Obama reserves the right to conduct a strike without UN approval.
Even if the deal born in Geneva succeeds in eliminating Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile on the stated timetable, which is unlikely given the practical hurdles, it wouldn’t tip the balance of power against the Syrian leader, said a second U.S. official, who follows the Syrian conflict closely.
The official, who spoke on the condition of not being identified in discussing intelligence reports, said that Assad’s arsenal of conventional weapons, especially artillery and air power, has accounted for more than 98 percent of the casualties the regime has inflicted in the war.
That has created anger among opposition groups that think the West hasn’t supplied them with the arms they need to fight back, said Benjamin Weinthal, a fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington who is doing research inside Syria on the opposition.
“There’s not just anger at the West,” Weinthal said by telephone from the Syrian-Turkey border, “but real fury at how Russia, Hezbollah, Iran, China have betrayed them” with their support for the regime.
Syria’s military has been resupplied by Iran, the U.S. official said. Assad’s forces remain strong and united enough to overcome divided and scattered rebel groups and maintain their hold on the capital, the Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast and a corridor between the two, the official said.
Even if the chemical-weapons accord holds, the official said that Assad may have gotten a good deal by agreeing to give up his nerve gas and other such munitions and thus avoid a U.S. military strike that could have damaged his conventional arsenal and scattered and demoralized his troops.