GENEVA — The United States and Russia reached a sweeping agreement Saturday that called for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014 and indefinitely stalled the prospect of U.S. airstrikes.
The joint announcement, on the third day of intensive talks in Geneva, also set the stage for one of the most challenging undertakings in the history of arms control.
“This situation has no precedent,” said Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “They are cramming what would probably be five or six years’ worth of work into a period of several months, and they are undertaking this in an extremely difficult security environment due to the ongoing civil war.”
Although the agreement explicitly includes the U.N. Security Council for the first time in determining possible international action in Syria, Russia has maintained its opposition to any military action.
But George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, emphasized that the possibility of unilateral U.S. military force was still on the table.
“We haven’t made any changes to our force posture to this point,” Little said. “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 agreement.”
In Syria, the state news agency, SANA, voiced cautious approval of the Russian and U.S. deal, calling it “a starting point,” though the government issued no immediate statement about its willingness to implement the agreement.
In any case, the deal represented at least a temporary reprieve for President Bashar Assad and his Syrian government, and it formally placed international decision-making about Syria into the purview of Russia, one of Assad’s staunchest supporters and military suppliers.
That reality was bitterly seized on by the fractured Syrian rebel forces, most of which have pleaded for U.S. airstrikes. Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Western-backed rebels’ nominal military command, the Supreme Military Council, denounced the initiative.
“All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people,” he told reporters in Istanbul. “ A crime against humanity has been committed, and there is not any mention of accountability.”
An immediate test of the viability of the accord will come within a week, when the Syrian government is to provide a “comprehensive listing” of its chemical arsenal. That list is to include the types and quantities of Syria’s poison gas, the chemical munitions it possesses, and the location of its storage, production and research sites.
“The real final responsibility here is Syrian,” a senior Obama administration official said of the deal.
Speaking at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “if fully implemented, this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world.”
If Assad fails to comply with the agreement, the issue would be referred to the U.N. Security Council, where the violations would be taken up under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes punitive action, Kerry said.
Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia made clear that Russia, which wields a veto in the Security Council, had not withdrawn its objections to the use of force.
If the Russians objected to punishing Syrian noncompliance with military action, however, the United States would still have the option of acting without the Security Council’s approval.
“If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
The issue of removing Syria’s chemical arms broke into the open Monday when Kerry, at a news conference in London, posed the question as to whether Assad could rapidly be disarmed only to state that he did not see how it could be done.
Less than a week later, what once seemed impossible has become the plan — one that will depend on Assad’s cooperation and that will need to be put in place in the middle of a fierce conflict.
To hammer out the agreement, arms control officials on both sides worked into the night, a process that recalled the treaty negotiations during the Cold War.
Kerry and Lavrov held a marathon series of meetings Friday, including a session that ended at midnight. On Saturday morning, the two sides reconvened with their arms-controls experts on the hotel pool deck as they pored over the text of the agreement.Continued...