GENEVA -- The United States and Russia on Saturday reached agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, giving President Bashar Assad one week to reveal what kind of weapons his country has and where they are being kept.
The agreement also calls for what one U.S. official called an “ambitious” timeline for dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons, setting a November deadline for eliminating that country’s ability to manufacture and mix the weapons and calling for the destruction of all materials that could be used to make such weapons by the middle of next year.
Under the agreement, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that monitors compliance with chemical weapons bans, would have “immediate and unfettered access to inspect any and all sites in Syria.” Their initial inspections are to be completed in November.
President Barack Obama welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement, calling it an "important, concrete step" toward the goal of destroying the weapons. He warned, however, that "if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."
But the prospect of a U.S. military strike, which seemed just hours away only two weeks ago, now appears remote. The agreement suggests that a military strike could be authorized “in the event of non-compliance,” but that would come only after approval by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. In remarks before reporters here, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said such intervention was off the table for now.
There was no immediate reaction from Syria or Assad. In interviews on Russian television last week, Assad had said Syria would reveal the details of its chemical weapons stockpiles a month after its formal accession to the Convention on Chemical Weapons, the treaty that bans their existence. But it seemed unlikely that he would openly resist a timeline agreed to publicly by Russia, the principal provider of his military’s armaments.
Syrian opposition figures decried the agreement, saying it failed to hold Assad accountable for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in chemical weapons attacks. But defected Gen. Salim Idriss, who heads the U.S.-backed Syrian Military Council, said his group would “facilitate” the work of inspectors and would hold its fire when inspectors pass through government-held areas where rebels are fighting. He said under no circumstances, however, would the rebels observe a general cease-fire.
“In regions under our control, there are no chemical weapons,” he said. “I don’t know if this will just mean that inspectors will pass through the regions that are under rebel control. We are ready.”
Unknown was what the response would be of other rebel groups, including the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both of which are affiliated with al Qaida and which comprise the Syrian rebels’ most effective fighters.
Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on terrorism at the Swedish Defense College, said in an email that both groups bear no love for the United States, Russia or the United Nations and could target the chemical weapons control effort, especially rebels from Central Asia and the Caucasus who have fought bitter battles against Russian influence in Chechnya and elsewhere.