US and Russia Reach Agreement on Plan to Rid Syria of Chemical Weapons

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, make statements to the media following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday Sept. 14, 2013.
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The United States and Russia announced an ambitious plan to transfer Syria's massive chemical weapons stockpile to international control by the middle of next year, at which point they would be destroyed.

Under the agreement, Syria only has one week to declare the size and location of its chemical weapons stashes. The disarmament would also be expedited, with inspectors arriving by November. Some weapons would be destroyed within Syria, while others may be transferred abroad for destruction.

Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Geneva the process would take place "in the soonest and safest manner."

Kerry met late into the night on Friday with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to hammer out the nuts and bolts of the agreement which was announced Saturday morning.

"The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments," Kerry told reporters at the conclusion of three days of intensive diplomacy.

"There can be no games. No room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime," he said.

Such a rapid plan would be difficult under normal circumstances. It will be even harder in the midst of Syria's civil war, with concerns about the safety of monitors and technicians working to carry out the plan.

"I welcome the progress made between the United States and Russia through our talks in Geneva, which represents an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria's chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed," President Obama said in a statement Saturday. "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. The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments."

Obama also added that "more work remains to be done" and that "there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."

Key to the deal, both sides agreed, would be the ability to verify Syria's declaration and monitor the transfer process.

The two sides said they were able to narrow the differences on their assessment on the scope of Syria's chemical weapons program, including the quantity of toxic gases as well as their type and location.

Going into the talks, American officials believed President Bashar al-Assad's forces had around 1,000 tons of these weapons, but the Russians were believed to have significantly lower estimates.

Kerry said the United States has been keeping an eye on those weapons as Assad moved them around the country.

"We've seen them move them, we've watched this," he said, but quickly added that the relocations were "always to places of more control."

There was no immediate response from the Assad government, which said this week it was willing to surrender its chemical weapons in order to avoid an American military strike.

Kerry said he hoped inspectors would be given "unfettered" access to the chemical weapon depots, particularly because they are in areas under government control. He did, however, allow a concession to his Russian counterpart that a site or two may be in rebel-held areas.

The United States and Russia have bitterly disagreed over who was responsible for an alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21 outside Damascus.

The U.S. says over 1,400 people were killed, including hundreds of children. The American say they have evidence that government forces were to blame while the Russians point fingers at the rebels.

A UN report on the on the incident, due to be released on Monday, will reportedly suggest only government forces have the capability to carry out such a deadly attack.

The United States and Russia appear to have reached a compromise on potential consequences if the Assad government violates the agreement.

The White House insists their threat of force is the only reason Assad was willing to give up his chemical weapons. Russia, on the other hand, has been opposed. Lavrov today said a military intervention would be "catastrophic."

But diplomacy may have allowed them both to claim victory. The two sides agreed to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution, which is currently being negotiated in New York, to be filed under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which allows for the use of force.

But any violations would be subject to an investigation and, if necessary, referred back to the Security Council to determine a punishment. Russia could then block those use of force on a case-by-case basis.

Kerry seemed to hint at the chance that, even under a Chapter 7 resolution, the use of force may not be authorized in the end.

"Use of force is clearly one of the options that may or may not be available to the Security Council," he said.

Chemical weapons disarmament is not cheap. Kerry said the United States and Russia would both commit an unspecified amount of funds and resources to this effort. He said they will ask UN members to contribute as well.

Kerry dismissed a question about his own assertion earlier this week that Assad would ever give up his chemical weapons.

"We didn't know it would be given the kind of life it has been given in the last 48 hours," he admitted Saturday.

He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who irked many in Congress earlier this week by penning what was seen by some as a condescending an op-ed in the New York Times, for his role in setting up the deal.

"I'm pleased that President Putin took initiative," he said. "And President Obama responded and we're here."

While this agreement will remove a dangerous weapon from the arsenal of a government that has apparently shown a willingness to use them, it will not solve the underlying conflict.

With that in mind, today Kerry and Lavrov recommitted to organizing a long-delayed international peace conference. They'll meet with the UN's Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, later this month when they are all in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

"There is no military solution to the conflict, it has to be political," Kerry said.

Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, said in a news conference in Turkey that the Russian initiative was a "waste of time," The Associated Press reported.

Idris said the rebels will continue "fighting the regime and work for bringing it down," AP reported.

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