THE United States and Russia overcame their differences yesterday and agreed to put Syria on a short leash, giving it one week to account for all of its chemical weapons, to submit to surrendering them for destruction according to a strict timetable, and to give international inspectors "unfettered access" to its territory.
The deal, announced after three days of tense talks in Geneva, represents a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough. In the best scenario, officials said, it could open the way also to bringing all sides in the conflict to the table for comprehensive peace talks. It was, however, instantly dismissed by the opposition Syrian Military Council.
Both sides had to bridge wide divides over the scope of the Syrian arsenal and the way in which the deal will be enforced. The US may have made the largest concession, acknowledging that while a United Nations resolution implementing the deal would be adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, theoretically authorising possible military action if Syria failed to comply, it would not seek such authorisation, nor expect language on military enforcement in the text.
That does not mean, however, that the US could not return to considering unilateral military strikes if the agreement jumped the rails. "There can be no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime," declared the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who negotiated the agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. "The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment."
Mr Kerry is due to travel to Israel today to explain the details of the agreement to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and will then go to Paris for talks tomorrow with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, and British Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
Mr Hague yesterday welcomed the agreement, describing it as a "significant step forward". He said it should be followed by swift action to begin the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons - reportedly scattered around the country - to international control.
"The priority must now be full and prompt implementation of the agreement, to ensure the transfer of Syria's chemical weapons to international control. The onus is now on the Assad regime to comply with this agreement in full. The international community, including Russia, must hold them to account. This includes doing everything we can to stop the continuing bloodshed in Syria, bringing all sides together to agree a political solution to the conflict."
The team of UN inspectors who investigated the suspected chemical weapons attack of 21 August will deliver its report to the Security Council in New York on Monday.
Under the terms of the arrangement, Syria will have seven days - until next Saturday - to submit "a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and local and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities".
UN inspectors will then need to visit Syrian sites by November and complete a first assessment of the country's chemical inventory by the end of that month.
In the longer term, all of Syria's chemical capacity, including delivery systems, the chemicals and precursors, and other equipment, would have to be destroyed or removed from Syrian territory by mid-2014, an optimistic timetable that assumes Damascus does not engage in the kind of cat-and-mouse games with which inspectors who were in Saddam Hussein's Iraq are so familiar.
The deal comes at the end of a dizzying week of diplomatic developments that kicked off with Mr Kerry saying in almost off-hand fashion in London, on Monday, that Syria could avoid US strikes if it gave up all of its chemical arsenal. Within hours, Russia had seized on the idea, and by Thursday, Damascus had for the first time acknowledged having such weapons and even joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. In his weekly radio message, President Barack Obama yesterday said that Syria must show "concrete actions" to confirm its sincerity.
The head of the Syrian Military Council, General Selim Idris, condemned the deal for allegedly letting President Bashar al-Assad off the hook for the 21 August attack, and said Syria had begun moving some of its chemical weapons equipment over the borders into Iraq and Jordan in the hope of fooling inspectors. The claim could not be verified.
"All of this initiative does not interest us," General Idris said. "Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people. A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability."
But Mr Kerry said; "Providing this effort is fully implemented, it can end the threat that these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to their neighbours, to the region ... and the world." But the inspection effort will be unprecedented in terms of danger and difficulty, and will need cooperation from the regime and rebel groups too. "This is very, very difficult, very, very difficult," one US official in Geneva was quoted as saying. "But it is doable."
The framework agreed yesterday will only have the force of law when backed by a UN resolution that will go to the Security Council for debate this week.
Mr Lavrov said he expects the limits on possible sanctions against Syria for non-compliance to be clear. "Any violations of procedures ... would be looked at by the Security Council, and if they are approved, the Security Council would take the required measures, concrete measures," he commented. "Nothing is said about the use of force or about any automatic sanctions."
And he added his own note of caution yesterday. "We understand that the decisions we have reached today are only the beginning of the road," he said. He and Mr Kerry plan to meet again on the fringes of the annual UN General Assembly that begins next week in New York to consider how to move forward with a putative peace conference, prospects for which have been essentially moribund until now.
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