GENEVA: The United States and Russia on Saturday agreed on an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of next year.
In a landmark deal thrashed out in talks spanning three days, the two powers gave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a week to hand over the details and location of his regime’s stockpile, drastically cutting back on the 30 days usually accorded to new signatories of the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad’s regime must also provide “immediate and unfettered” access to inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“The inspectors must be on the ground no later than November... and the goal is to establish the removal by halfway through next year,” Kerry told reporters at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after they wrapped up their talks.
Echoing a warning from President Barack Obama that military action by the US and its allies remained an option if diplomacy fails, Kerry warned that there must be “no games, no room for avoidance of anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime.”
Kerry said the steps agreed on Saturday would be encapsulated in a UN Security Council resolution drawn up under chapter seven of the organisation’s charter, which provides for enforcement through sanctions including the possible use of military force.
But with Russia strongly opposed to the use of military threats and wielding a veto on the Security Council, Kerry acknowledged it was “impossible to have a pre-agreement” on what would happen in the event of non-compliance.
Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov signalled that Moscow would back some form of sanction, saying the Security Council would act if Syria fails to meet its demands.
“There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria, it has to be political,” Kerry said. “And we together remain committed to getting there.”
Lavrov hailed Saturday’s accord as an “excellent” agreement that reflected the priorities of both countries.
“The aim has been achieved that was set in a conversation between our presidents on September 5 on the sidelines of the G20... about putting under international control Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons,” Lavrov said.
France on Saturday welcomed the Geneva deal as a breakthrough. “The plan is a significant step forward,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
Despite the upbeat tone of Saturday’s press conference, Kerry acknowledged that “a hard road” lies ahead and international scepticism about Assad’s good faith was underlined by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Assad seemed to have responded “positively” so far, Ban told France 24 television, “but at the same time I sense in the international community some sense of scepticism.”
Ban has also accused Assad of multiple crimes against humanity as he said a UN inspectors’ report into the incident, due to be published next week, would provide “overwhelming” confirmation that chemical weapons were used on August 21.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama welcomed the deal reached on Saturday to strip Syria of chemical weapons but said much remains to be done and warned Damascus to comply with the accord.
In a statement, Obama said that if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad does not live up to the deal Washington reached with Syria’s ally Russia, “the United States remains prepared to act.”
Obama said the accord was made possible ‘in part’ by what he called his credible threat to use force against Syria as punishment for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians last month.
“A dictator must not be allowed to gas children in their beds with impunity. And we cannot risk poison gas becoming the new weapon of choice for tyrants and terrorists the world over,” he said.