The United States and Russia struck a deal Saturday under which Syria will allow its stockpile of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by next year — easing a crisis over a threatened American military attack.
Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced the deal after a third day of talks in Geneva.
“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,” President Barack Obama said in a statement issued by the White House after the deal. “The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments.”
Under the deal, Syria must provide a full catalog of its chemical arsenal within a week and allow United Nations inspectors to start working no later than November. The plan envisions the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons by mid-2014.
“There can be no games,” Kerry said. “No room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance.”
If Syria fails to comply, it will be referred to the U.N. Security Council, Kerry said. It was not clear what steps the Security Council might be. The deal includes nothing about the potential use of force, Lavrov said.
The Russian foreign minister called it an agreement “based on consensus and compromise and professionalism.” France welcomed it as an “important step forward.” Kerry and his British and French counterparts will talk about the deal’s implementation over lunch Monday in Paris.
The United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, welcomed the deal and pledged his support. Through a spokesman, he said he hoped that would not just prevent further chemical use in Syria but “help pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people.”
Syrian opposition forces remained skeptical.
In Istanbul, the head of the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, Gen. Selim Idris, called the deal a blow to opposition hopes of overthrowing Assad.
He said, however, that his forces would help the inspectors.
The deal represented a break in an international crisis that has built since Aug. 21, when, the United States says, the forces of Syrian leader Bashar Assad gassed 1,400 people to death, including 400 children.
Syria is mired in a civil war that has left an estimated 100,000 people dead.
The United States threatened an attack, probably with missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost the entire world — with the exception of Syria, until this week — bans the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances.
But other countries, including Britain, a reliable U.S. ally, failed to go along. And President Barack Obama faced a Congress that was skeptical if not hostile to the idea, and a public that was weary of further U.S. entanglement in the Middle East.
“We haven’t made any changes to our force posture to this point,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said on Saturday. “The credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress, and it’s important that the Assad regime lives up to its obligations under the framework arrangement.”
The agreement Saturday came with U.N. inspectors days away from releasing a report on the Aug. 21 attack. It was expected to establish that poison gas was used in the attack, outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, but not necessarily to determine which side in the civil war did it.
The Geneva deal came at the end of an extraordinary week in the crisis. The turning point appeared to have been Monday, when Kerry suggested, offhand and in response to a reporter’s question at a press conference, that Syria might avoid a strike by turning over all its chemical weapons.
Philippe Desmazes / AFP - Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, holds a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the agreement they reached on eliminating Syria's chemical weapons.
“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry said.
Within hours, though, the Syrian foreign minister was welcoming the idea, and Syria was talking it through with Russia, a close ally. The administration began signaling that it was open to a deal, careful to say that the use of force was still an option.
By Tuesday night, Obama had to rework a prime-time television address to say that he would give diplomacy more time to work. He also used that speech to build a moral case for U.S. action if Syria stalled or otherwise misbehaved. Kerry and Lavrov began meeting Thursday in Geneva.
While the United States has said it cannot get tied up in Syria’s civil war, Kerry suggested that the deal Saturday might at least provide an opening to “further cooperation that is essential to end the bloodshed.”
“What we agreed on here today could conceivably be the first critical, concrete step in that direction,” he said. “The United States and Russia have long agreed that there is no military salutation to the conflict in Syria. It has to be political.”
The head of the Supreme Military Council, a leading group in the Syrian opposition, said that Assad’s forces had been moving their chemical weapons arsenal Lebanon and Iraq over the past few days. Syrian opposition groups have expressed disappointment that the United States might back away from a strike on Assad.
“We told them do not be fooled,” Brig. Gen. Salim Idris told reporters Saturday in Istanbul.
Kerry said the removal and destruction of the Syrian arsenal would take place under the auspices of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, a body that grew out of the international treaty that banned chemical weapons in 1992.
Kerry said the destruction should be “expeditious,” but taking control of and destroying chemical weapons is an extremely complex process that could take years and cost billions of dollars, experts have said.
It is also much more complicated, if not impossible, in the middle of a war.
In the case of nerve gas, which the United States says is what Assad used in the Aug. 21 attack, the gas has to be drained from munitions, and the munitions have to be incinerated under the strictest circumstances.
Old chemical weapons can be volatile — the munitions can pop like champagne corks and release gas. And in any case, nations have been known to lie about eliminating their stockpiles of chemicals.
Republican Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee released a statement on Saturday in which the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voiced concerns with the absence of a military option in the plan.
“Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement,” Corker said in the statement. “I’m still reviewing the details and believe Syria’s willingness to follow through is very much an open question, but I remain supportive of a strong diplomatic solution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.”
Also on Saturday, Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., blasted the deal, calling the agreement "morally and strategically indefensible."
"It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama Administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin," the senators' statement read.
The deal between Kerry and Lavrov could represent, if only for the moment, a brightening of U.S.-Russian relations.
The United States was furious when Russia granted a year’s asylum to Edward Snowden, the former federal contractor who leaked details of National Security Agency surveillance programs.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a roadblock to any U.S. action on Syria through the U.N. Security Council. Even after Russia floated the idea of having Syria cede its chemical arsenal, Russia insisted that the U.S. renounce any use of force.
Then, on Thursday, Putin wrote an extraordinary Op-Ed for The New York Times in which he said it was “dangerous” for Obama to send that the United States was an exceptional nation.
He also criticized the U.S. for foreign policy adventurism and a “with us or against us” approach, and warned that U.S. military intervention in Syria would only increase violence, perhaps including terrorism.
Matthew DeLuca, Becky Bratu and Catherine Chomiak contributed to this report. Reuters and The Associated Press also contributed.
First published September 14 2013, 8:11 PM