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14 Sep, 2013 10:15

US-Russia reach landmark deal on destruction of Syria chemical weapons arsenal

Russia and the United States reached a deal on a framework that will see the destruction or removal of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid- 2014. Under the plan, the Assad government has one week to hand over an inventory of its chemical weapons arsenal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry announced the plan on putting an end to Syria’s chemical weapons program following their third day of negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kerry outlined several points of the plan, which would see the “rapid assumption of control by the international community” of Syria’s chemical weapons. He further stressed US-Russia commitment to the complete destruction of not only of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, but also its production and refinement capabilities.

Syria will also become a party to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which outlaws their production and use. On Saturday, the UN said it had received all documents necessary for Syria to join the chemical weapons convention and that Syria would come under the treaty in 30 days starting on October 14.

Damascus must submit within a week’s time – “and not 30 days” – a complete inventory of related arms, “including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production and research and development facilities."

The Syrian government should provide the OPCW, the UN and other supporting personnel “with the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria.” Lavrov later said that security for all international inspectors on the ground should be provided for not only by the government, but opposition forces as well.

It remains undecided who will actually be tasked with destroying the stock, although their destruction “outside of Syria" and under “OPWC supervision” would prove to be optimal.

On the timetable, Kerry said UN inspectors must be on the ground no later than November, while the destruction of chemical weapons must be completed by the middle of 2014.

"Providing this framework is fully implemented it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but also their neighbors," Kerry said adding that Russian and US teams of experts had reached "a shared assessment" of the existing stockpile and that Syria must destroy all of its weapons. It was possible that the Syrian rebels have some chemical weapons, he acknowledged.

If Damascus fails to comply with the plan, a response in accordance with UN Charter Chapter 7 will follow, Kerry said, in a reference to the use of military force. The chapter provides for "action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security" in the event other measures fail.

People walk along a damaged street filled with debris in Deir al-Zor September 4, 2013. (Reuters//Khalil Ashawi)

But Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said the agreement did not include any potential use of force against Syria. He however said that deviations from the plan, including attacks on UN inspectors, would be brought to the UN Security Council, which would decide on further action.

There is no prior agreement about what form the Security Council’s measures might take if Syria does not comply, Kerry said.

The joint press conference was rather jovial in nature, contrasting sharply with the public barbs which have been traded between Russian and US officials in recent days.

Kerry in fact concluded the press conference by teasing Lavrov that he “could be a senator” after the Russian FM gave a rather voluble reply to a question posed by a Russian journalist.

Kick starting Geneva II

Meanwhile, both sides reiterated previously stated intentions to meet with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, on the margins of the UN General Assembly on September 28.

Speaking alongside Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, Brahimi said ongoing work to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control was a necessary step for convening the Geneva II conference. The conference, which is intended to hammer out a political solution to the brutal civil war which has embroiled Syria for over two years, could be held in October, Lavrov told reporters.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to present a report to the Security Council which sources say contains overwhelming evidence that “chemical weapons were used” in an August 21 attack in a Damascus Suburb which killed between 355 and 1,729 people.

The government of Bashar Assad strongly denied government forces were responsible for the attack, while the West overwhelmingly blamed Damascus, prompting US Barack Obama’s threat of military action.

Obama has threatened to strike Syria unilaterally, prompting Russia’s Saturday’s joint proposal which will see Syria’s chemical weapons brought under international control.

Although President Assad immediately acquiesced to the Russian-backed plan, rebel forces have resisted efforts which have staved off Western intervention in the country.

On Saturday,  the Free Syrian Army rejected a US-Russian deal as a stalling tactic and vowed to continue fighting to topple the Assad government.

"The Russian-American initiative does not concern us. It only seeks to gain time," said Salim Idriss, the chief of the FSA command, said.

"We completely ignore this initiative and will continue to fight to bring down the regime," he told a press conference Saturday in the Turkish city of Istanbul.