BEIRUT: Damascus will commit to a U.S.-Russian plan to eradicate its chemical weapons once it has U.N. approval, Syria’s information minister said, while the U.S. warned the threat of military force remained on the table.
“Syria is committing itself to whatever comes from the U.N.,” Omran al-Zoubi told Britain’s ITN television. “We accept the Russian plan to get rid of our chemical weapons. In fact we’ve started preparing our list.
“We are already documenting our papers and we have started to do our job,” he added.
Under the breakthrough agreement reached in Geneva Saturday, Syria will provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal within one week and hand over all of the components of its program by mid-2014. The deal has won backing from China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
The first official Syrian response to the weapons agreement followed earlier comments from a high-ranking Syrian official, Ali Haidar, who described the plan as “victory” for President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“On the one hand, they will help Syrians get out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they averted a war against Syria by removing the pretext for those who wanted to unleash one,” Haidar told a Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
The deal, hashed out in marathon talks between U.S. and Russian diplomats, averts American missile strikes against the Assad regime, although the Obama administration has warned that the military option remains on the table if Damascus does not comply. The U.S. Navy will maintain its increased presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to keep pressure on Syria and to be in position to respond if diplomacy fails.
“The threat of force is real, and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday in Jerusalem, where he briefed Israeli leaders on the agreement ahead of talks that will also covering Israeli-Palestinians peace talks.
French President Francois Hollande said in a televised address to his country that he has not ruled out the “military option” either. Otherwise, he added, “there will be no pressure.”
Hollande said a resolution could be voted on by the end of the week but said any resolution must include the threat of some kind of sanction in the event that Syria does not comply with the accord.
The U.S. accuses the Assad government of using poison gas against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people. Syria denies the allegations and blames the rebels.
The suspected chemical attack raised the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Syria that the rebels hoped would tip the civil war in their favor. But as the strikes appeared imminent, Obama delayed an armed response. Russia then floated the idea of Syria relinquishing its chemical arsenal to avert Western strikes.
For Syria’s opposition, the deal is disappointing. It defers any U.S. action for the foreseeable future and does nothing to address the broader civil war or the use of conventional weapons, which have been responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths in the conflict.
Assad’s jets and artillery hit rebel suburbs of the capital again Sunday in an offensive that residents said began last week when Obama delayed airstrikes.
With that in mind, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group called Sunday for a ban on the use of ballistic missiles and air power by Assad’s forces in addition to the prohibition on chemical weapons.
“The Syrian Coalition insists that the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, which killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, be extended to include the prohibition of the use of air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas,” the Syrian National Coalition said on its official website.
While a ban on air power and ballistic missiles would likely curb the bloodshed in some areas, it’s unclear how such a measure would be imposed or enforced. The Syrian government is highly unlikely to unilaterally relinquish such weapons, while Western powers have shown little appetite for setting up a no-fly zone in the country.
“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons,” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine. “Now, he can get away with nearly anything – as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons.”
Kerry described the Geneva understanding as a “framework, not a final agreement,” but one which had “the full ability to be able to strip all the chemical weapons from Syria.” But he acknowledged its full implementation was crucial.
“Just removing the chemical weapons doesn’t do the job, we understand that ... but it is one step forward, and it eliminates that weapon from the arsenal of a man who has proven willing to do anything to his people to hold on to power.”
Standing next to him, Netanyahu said stripping Syria of its chemical stockpile would make the entire region “a lot safer,” although he was quick to draw parallels with the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
U.N. diplomats said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the Security Council Monday about what its inspectors found from the sites of the suspected gas attack. They spoke anonymously because the timing was not yet final.