GENEVA – The United States and Russia agreed Saturday on an outline for the identification and seizure of Syrian chemical weapons and said Syria must turn over an accounting of its arsenal within a week.
The agreement will be backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Kerry said that the first international inspection of Syrian chemical weapons will take place by November, with destruction to begin next year.
Providing this effort is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people, but also to their neighbors, to the region, and the rest of the world, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that the documents released Saturday constitute an agreed proposal that does not yet have the force of law.
Senior administration officials had said Friday that the Obama administration would not press for U.N. authorization to use force against Syria if it reneges on any agreement to give up its chemical weapons.
One fear throughout the more than two-year civil war has been that the weapons would fall under the control of militant groups or that Syrian President Bashar Assad, if desperate enough, could sell them to the highest bidder.
Syrian rebel commander Gen. Salim Idriss reiterated his rejection of the Russian initiative Saturday, saying that it effectively leaves Assad unpunished for an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Aug. 21.
What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him? he said, speaking at a televised news conference in Istanbul. We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.
Idriss said that the United States and other international allies of the Syrian opposition are backing the Russian deal despite knowing that it is a ploy to protect the Syrian government. Russia and Syria are playing games to buy more time, he said, adding that with the focus now on chemical weapons, the Syrians killed by other weapons such as Scud missiles have been forgotten.
He implored the international community to give further assistance.
Don’t leave the Syrians alone, facing and resisting this criminal regime, he said. We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.
Idriss said that the rebels would facilitate safe passage for international chemical weapons inspectors in Syria but that there would be no cease-fire, vowing to press on fighting the regime and work towards bringing it down.
He added that Kerry had informed him by telephone that the option of military strikes had not been ruled out.
The rebels say that Assad has been emboldened by the U.S. rollback from military strikes, stepping up his campaign in the Damascus suburbs. On Saturday, Idriss accused Assad of using chemical weapons again in the capital last week, without giving further details.
Mosab Abu Qutada, a spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus, said a poisonous gas attack on Thursday injured 15 people in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. The claims could not be verified. Video footage posted online by activists showed men struggling to breathe.
The regime gained a victory, Abu Qutada said. It now believes that the whole international community can’t punish it, or stop it, so it will do it all.
Abu Qutada said the Syrian army’s efforts to retake rebel-held suburbs of Damascus where the Aug 21. attack took place have escalated in recent days, with the government gaining some territory in the Al-Marj area of Eastern Ghouta.
U.S. officials traveling with Kerry said the United States believes the Syrian government’s approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons material is housed among at least 45 sites, about half of which now contain material that could be used as weapons. U.S. intelligence has tracked movement of some of the material during the war, the officials said.
The stockpile contains both blister agents such as mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin, the gas believed responsible for the Aug. 21 attack, one official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss some previously classified assessments and to describe the closed-door negotiations in Geneva.
Destruction would take place within Syria and probably also in one or more other countries, another official said.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the proposed schedule calls for destruction much faster than has taken place in other countries that have voluntarily given up weapons of mass destruction, such as Libya. The rapid pace is largely in recognition of the ongoing civil war and the need to rid the battlefield of such weapons, the officials said.
But it was also clear that in the U.S. view the tight schedule, which one official called daunting, is partly designed to hold Russia responsible for progress.
It was further clear that the two sponsoring nations disagreed about how the United Nations could enforce the pact.
Details were intentionally left vague, but Russia has not shifted from its long-standing opposition to any U.N. mandate for international military force inside Syria.
That means that punishing Syria for failing to comply with the agreement would probably take the form of U.N. sanctions or other nonmilitary means.
Kerry went out of his way Saturday to praise Lavrov and to thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for pressing ahead with an enforceable agreement despite those differences.
In Washington on Saturday, President Barack Obama said he welcomed the progress that had been made in Geneva, calling it a concrete step toward getting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and, ultimately, destroyed.