By John Heilprin and Matthew Lee
GENEVA: A diplomatic breakthrough Saturday on securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile averted the threat of U.S. military action for the moment and could swing momentum toward ending a horrific civil war.
Marathon negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats at a Geneva hotel produced a sweeping agreement that will require one of the most ambitious arms-control efforts in history.
The deal involves making an inventory and seizing all components of Syria’s chemical weapons program and imposing penalties if President Bashar Assad’s government fails to comply with the terms.
After days of intense day-and-night negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their teams, the two powers announced they had a framework for ridding the world of Syria’s chemicals weapons.
The United States says Assad used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital, killing more than 1,400 civilians. That prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to ready American airstrikes on his order — until he decided last weekend to ask for authorization from Congress. Then came the Russian proposal, and Obama asked Congress, already largely opposed to military intervention, to delay a vote.
Obama said the deal “represents an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed.”
“This framework provides the opportunity for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious and verifiable manner, which could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and the world,” he said in a news release.
Kerry and Lavrov said they agreed on the size of the chemical weapons inventory, and on a speedy timetable and measures for Assad to do away with the toxic agents.
But Syria, a Moscow ally, kept silent on the development, while Obama made clear that “if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
The deal offers the potential for reviving international peace talks to end a civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and sent 2 million refugees fleeing for safety, and now threatens the stability of the entire Mideast.
Kerry and Lavrov, along with the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the chances for a follow-up peace conference in Geneva to the one held in June 2012 would depend largely on the weapons deal.
The United States and Russia are giving Syria just one week, until Sept. 21, to submit “a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”
International inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed. They must be given “immediate and unfettered” access to inspect all sites.
All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
“Ensuring that a dictator’s wanton use of chemical weapons never again comes to pass, we believe is worth pursuing and achieving,” Kerry said.
For the moment, the deal may not do much to change the fighting on the ground. But the impasse in the international community over how to react could ease somewhat with the United States and Russia also agreeing to immediately press for a U.N. Security Council resolution that enshrines the weapons deal.
They will seek a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can authorize both the use of force and nonmilitary measures.
But Russia, which already has rejected three resolutions on Syria, would be sure to veto a U.N. move toward military action, and U.S. officials said they did not contemplate seeking such an authorization.
“The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments,” Kerry told a news conference at the hotel where round-the-clock negotiations were conducted since Thursday night. “There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime.”
Kerry and Lavrov emphasized that the deal sends a strong message not just to Syria but to the world, too, that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
Lavrov added, cautiously, “We understand that the decisions we have reached today are only the beginning of the road.”
In an interview with Russian state television, Lavrov said the groundwork for such an approach to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile began in June 2012 when Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
“Both sides expressed serious concern that it could not be ruled out that the chemical weapons which Syria possessed according to American and our information could fall into the wrong hands,” Lavrov said. The presidents agreed to share information on a regular basis about Syria’s arsenal, he said.
Lavrov said Russian and U.S. officials went on to contact Syrian leaders to determine the safety of weapons storage.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss details of the negotiations, said the United States and Russia agreed that Syria had roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin. These officials said the two sides did not agree on the number of chemical weapons sites in Syria.
U.S. intelligence believes Syria has about 45 sites associated with chemical weapons, half of which have “exploitable quantities” of material that could be used in munitions. The Russian estimate is considerably lower; the officials would not say by how much. U.S. intelligence agencies believe all the stocks remain in government control, the officials said.