Secretary of State John Kerry today starts trying to line up allied support for a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014 he negotiated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Kerry is scheduled to meet today in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He's set to talk tomorrow in Paris with counterparts from the U.K. and France, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and from Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the opposition forces seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Kerry and Lavrov reached agreement yesterday in Geneva on a framework for finding, securing and destroying Assad’s stocks of poison gas. The deal calls for early signs of progress, giving Assad one week to submit an inventory of his toxic weapons, and calls for initial inspections in Syria by November.
“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.”
The diplomatic focus now shifts to New York, where the UN is preparing to release, as early as tomorrow, an inspection team’s report on an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
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 as a permanent Security Council member to block UN condemnations of Assad during the 2 1/2-year civil war.
While the deal holds off, for now, U.S. military strikes against Syria, President Barack Obama said America remains “prepared to act” if diplomacy fails to persuade Assad to give up his chemical arms stockpile.
“Much more work remains to be done,” Obama said in a statement, “to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. hasn’t “made any changes to our force posture to this point.” The Navy has four destroyers, with Tomahawk cruise missiles, on station in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
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 Russian initiative seized on a Sept. 9 comment by Kerry that Assad could avert U.S. attacks by quickly surrendering his chemical weapons, while saying it “can’t be done, obviously.” 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.
Yesterday’s Geneva accord came together 10 days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said Kerry had lied about the role of terrorists in the Syrian opposition, and a month after Obama said Putin’s posture sometimes resembled a “slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Syria’s SANA news agency yesterday quoted Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi as saying Syria welcomes “credible international initiatives,” without specifically referring to the chemical weapons agreement negotiated in Geneva.
“There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” Kerry told reporters yesterday in Geneva at a joint briefing with Lavrov.
Questions about whether Assad will go along with the removal of chemical weapons, which the regime hadn’t acknowledged having until this week, led to some criticism from Capitol Hill.
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.”
The agreement may send Assad a message “that he can go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East using every tool of warfare, so long as he does not use chemical weapons,” said McCain and Graham, who are prominent supporters of U.S. military assistance to mainstream Syrian rebel fighters.
“Syria’s willingness to follow through is very much an open question,” Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
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.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, called the plan -- which envisions removing the weapons for destruction outside Syria -- “thorough and tough.”
“There are going to be challenges along the way and key tests of Syrian cooperation,” he said in an e-mail. “The technology and the capability to do it is there; the key is the political will.”
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail that he “would be very, very surprised if the regime allowed full access to all sites, let alone a process for getting these materials out of Syria for destruction.”
Kerry said yesterday 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. U.S. and French intelligence reports have said the weapons are controlled by Branch 450 of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center.
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 a stalled peace process to end the fighting that’s 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 in New York 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.
Kerry said the U.S. and Russia agreed on the size of Assad’s chemical arsenal, which may hinder possible efforts to hide it. 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.
“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.
Syrian rebel leaders said they wouldn’t interfere with inspections, even as they criticized the accord.
“We have lost hope that the international community would provide help,” Salim Idris, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s supreme military command, said yesterday.
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, either, 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 agreement would require further UN Security Council action to sanction Syria for noncompliance.
“There is nothing said about the use of force or any automatic sanctions,” Lavrov said yesterday. “Any violations must be indisputably proved in the UN Security Council.” Russia has a veto on the council.
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. The UN team wasn’t allowed under its mandate to assign responsibility for the attack. Syria and Russia have blamed anti-government “terrorists.”
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