Saturday 25 November 2017

US, Russia reach deal on Syria's killer chemicals

Assad regime has week to declare stockpile as superpowers struggle to paper over divisions

Peter Beaumont

The US and Russia have reached agreement on a deal to eliminate Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons by the middle of next year, following three days of negotiations in Geneva.

However, as they announced the deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struggled to paper over the deep divisions between Moscow and Washington over what sanctions should be applied if Syria fails to comply.

General Salim Idris, head of the supreme military council of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group, said the deal was a blow to the two-and-a-half-year uprising, and accused president Bashar al-Assad's forces – although without immediate evidence – of moving its chemical weapons into neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq in recent days.

He added that the agreement would not end the crisis, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced 6.5 million Syrians.

The deal in Geneva came ahead of tomorrow's report by UN weapons inspectors, which is expected to confirm that chemical weapons were used on August 21 on the outskirts of Damascus, with some officials claiming it will point the finger at the Assad's regime.

Some observers have suggested that it was the imminent publication of the UN report that pushed Moscow to insist that Syria give up its chemical weapons, despite the fact that Russia has stuck to its line that it believes the chemical attack was a rebel "provocation".

According to the agreement, Syria has one week to declare its chemical stocks and delivery systems – believed to be held at 42 sites – and until November to open these sites to UN experts.

Both sides agreed that they would seek a resolution under chapter seven of the UN charter, which could authorise sanctions if Syria fails to comply. Moscow and Washington remained far apart, however, on the question of what those sanctions might be.

US President Barack Obama reserved the right to use military force in Syria, Mr Kerry said, adding: "There's no diminution of options. I have no doubt that the combination of the threat of force and the willingness to pursue diplomacy helped to bring us to this moment.

"Providing this framework is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose, not only to the Syrian people but also to their neighbours and to the region. And because of the threat of proliferation, this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world."

However, Mr Lavrov said of the agreement: "There was nothing said about the use of force and not about any automatic sanctions."

The resolution would allow punitive measures if Syria fails to comply, but would stop short of military action if the 15-nation security council approves them. The US and Russia are two of the five permanent council members with a veto. The others are Britain, China and France.

MICHAEL McDOWELL PAGE 21

Mr Lavrov, who said the agreement was "based on consensus and compromise and professionalism", indicated that there would be limits to using a chapter seven resolution, which Russia would almost certainly veto if it specifically authorised a military strike.

"Any violations of procedures. . . would be looked at by the security council, and if they are approved, the council would take the required measures, concrete measures," he said.

Mr Obama had threatened the use of force in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria, which US officials say killed about 1,400 people. The US has blamed Mr Assad's government for the attack, while Russia and Mr Assad say it was the work of rebels.

Although the participants have expressed a hope that the chemical disarmament agreement could lead to a second peace conference in Geneva to end the conflict, fighting has continued and the deal has been dismissed by opposition leaders.

Syrian warplanes struck against rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and government forces clashed with rebels on the frontlines, according to residents.

In Istanbul, General Idris said the rebels regarded the deal as a blow to their struggle to oust Assad, but he added that they would co-operate to facilitate the work of any international inspectors on the ground.

However, another military council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said the opposite. "Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria," he said.

Meanwhile, UN diplomats said secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the security council about the weapons report tomorrow morning.

He had said on Friday that he expected "an overwhelming report" that chemical weapons were used on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov also met the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss a potential new peace conference in Geneva.

© Observer

Sunday Independent

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