Russia and the United States put aside bitter differences over Syria to strike a deal on Saturday that by removing President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal may avert U.S. military action against him.
After three days of talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded Assad account for his secret stockpile within a week and let international inspectors eliminate all the weapons by the middle of next year – an “ambitious” target, Kerry said.
The accord leaves major questions unanswered, including how feasible such a major disarmament can be in the midst of civil war and at what point Washington might yet make good on a continued threat to attack if it thinks Assad is reneging.
Under the Geneva pact, the United States and Russia will back a U.N. enforcement mechanism. But its terms are not yet set. Russia is unlikely to support the military option that President Barack Obama said he was still ready to use.
“If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” Obama said. “The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments.”
To that end, the Pentagon said U.S. military forces were still positioned to strike, if ordered.
Kerry acknowledged that further success was far from guaranteed: “The implementation of this framework, which will require the vigilance and the investment of the international community, and full accountability of the Assad regime, presents a hard road ahead,” he said.
Having taken the surprise decision two weeks ago to seek congressional approval for strikes to punish Assad for using poison gas, Obama faced a dilemma when lawmakers appeared likely to deny him authorisation.
They cited unease about inadvertently helping Islamist militants among the rebels and a wariness of new entanglements in the Middle East after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The weapons deal proposed by Putin, a former KGB agent intent on restoring some of the influence Moscow lost with the Soviet collapse two decades ago, offered Obama a way out.
But Obama has been bombarded with criticism for his handling of Syria and a muddled message, moving the United States toward, and then back from the brink of striking Syria over an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that Washington blames on Assad.
There is little sign of softening among Syrians, however, or among rival backers in the Middle East, where the conflict is part of a broader regional confrontation with sectarian elements between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Muslim Arab leaders.
Senior Kerry aides involved in the talks said that the United States and Russia agreed that Syria has 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents, including nerve gas sarin and mustard gas – one of the world’s largest stockpiles of such material.
But the officials said there was no agreement on how many sites must be inspected. Washington thinks it is at least 45.
One U.S. official called the task “daunting to say the least”. Another noted there were “targets … not a deadline”.
The Hague-based OPCW has never moved weapons across borders before, because of the risk, and never worked in a war zone.