WASHINGTON -- The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Friday night to approve a resolution directing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, setting in motion an international effort expected to begin within days.
The council voted to accept a plan, negotiated between Russia and the United States, that lays heavy obligations on Syrian President Bashar Assad to cooperate with international inspectors in their efforts to dismantle his chemical weapons and threatens penalties if he doesn’t.
But any such penalties would have to be approved in separate votes by the Security Council. And Russia has been a firm defender of the Syrian government, a longtime ally.
The council’s vote came hours after the international organization charged with prohibiting the development and use of chemical weapons voted to accept a plan to carry out its duties in destroying the weapons.
The executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, said it would begin inspecting sites on Tuesday, working toward a goal of eliminating Syria's entire arsenal of chemical weapons by mid-2014.
The OPCW will be working on an accelerated schedule that calls for the destruction of production equipment by Nov. 1.
The U.N. vote followed weeks of both U.S. threats of military action and high-wire diplomacy after an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital. The United States blamed the Assad regime for the assault and said it had left about 1,400 people dead.
On Friday, President Obama described the diplomatic progress as “a potentially huge victory for the international community” and a validation of his strategy to threaten targeted missile strikes to pressure Assad while also pushing a diplomatic process aimed at ending Syria’s bitter civil war.
But skeptics, including many Republicans in Congress, said it remains to be seen whether the resolution will be enough to force Assad’s hand if he and his Russian allies decide to resist the efforts of the OPCW and U.N. officials.