A US-Russian plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons gained China’s support yesterday, easing its route toward the UN Security Council and hiking pressure on Damascus to act within days.
US President Barack Obama warned that Washington, which has threatened to launch military strikes against Syria for a chemical attack it says killed hundreds last month, “remains prepared to act.”
The ambitious plan to dismantle and destroy Syria’s chemical arms by the middle of next year was thrashed out during three days of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart in Moscow, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov.
It gives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a week to hand over details of his regime’s stockpile of the internationally banned arms to avert unspecified sanctions and the threat of US-led military strikes.
China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, welcomed the agreement.
“The Chinese side welcomes the general agreement between the US and Russia. This agreement will enable tensions in Syria to be eased,” Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) said at a meeting with French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius in Beijing.
However, the deal has already been rejected by rebel forces who warned it would not halt the Syria conflict that has killed more than 110,000 people and displaced millions in two-and-a-half years.
“We cannot accept any part of this initiative,” said Brigadier General Salim Idris, the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council. “Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid-2014, to continue being killed every day and to accept [the deal] just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014?”
Kerry was to fly to Israel yesterday to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the deal.
He will travel to Paris for a meeting today with Fabius and British Secretary of Foreign Affairs William Hague, as well as Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Saud al-Faisal.
Announcing the deal on Saturday, Kerry said al-Assad’s regime must provide “immediate and unfettered” access to inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“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 said, flanked by Lavrov at a Geneva news conference.
Obama said the pressure was now on al-Assad to deliver, but influential US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said the agreement was a debacle.
The two Republican lawmakers voiced fear that Washington’s friends and foes alike would view the agreement as an “act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”
Kerry said the agreed steps would be encapsulated in a council resolution drawn up under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which provides for enforcement through sanctions, including military force.
Yet with Russia strongly opposed to the use of military threats against long-term ally Syria and also wielding a veto on the council, Kerry said it was “impossible to have a pre-agreement” on what would happen in the event of non-compliance.
Lavrov hailed the accord as an “excellent” agreement “whose significance is hard to overestimate.”
The Russian foreign minister will hold talks tomorrow with his French counterpart amid an intense few days of negotiations between the five permanent council members.
China and Russia have consistently blocked resolutions at the UN to sanction the Syrian regime.
France has been one of Washington’s closest allies in urging military action in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus blamed by Washington and others on the Syrian regime.
The British parliament has voted against participating in any military action against al-Assad.
Fighting on the ground in Syria has continued unabated, with rebel and regime forces engaged in a fierce battle for control of the Christian town of Maalula, near Damascus.
Washington and Moscow hope to secure a political transition to end the conflict that began in March 2011. Both countries now agree Syria possesses about 1,000 tonnes of various chemical agents, including mustard and sarin gas, sulphur and VX.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has accused al-Assad of crimes against humanity and said a UN inspectors’ report due to be published today would give “overwhelming” confirmation that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21.