BEIRUT — A high-ranking Syrian official called the U.S.-Russian agreement on securing Syria's chemical weapons a “victory” for President Bashar Assad's regime, but the U.S. warned that “the threat of force is real” if Damascus fails to carry out the plan.
The comments Sunday by Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar to a Russian state news agency were the first by a senior Syrian government official on the deal struck a day earlier in Geneva. Under the agreement, Syria will provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal within one week and hand over all the components of its program by mid-2014.
“We welcome these agreements,” Haidar was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti agency. “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.”
There has been no official statement from the Syrian government, and it was not clear whether Haidar's comments reflect Assad's thinking.
The deal, hashed out in marathon negotiations 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. President Barack Obama said last week that 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 in Jerusalem, where he briefed Israeli leaders on the agreement.
French President François Hollande said in a televised address to his country that he has not ruled out the “military option” either. Otherwise, he said, “there will be no pressure.”
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. Other death toll estimates are far lower. Syria denies the allegations and blames the rebels.