WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia reached a surprise diplomatic breakthrough Saturday, agreeing to an ambitious deal that would strip Syria of chemical weapons by mid-2014 and shelve the prospect of a U.S. military strike but would require close cooperation from embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who announced the framework agreement after three days of intense negotiations in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said Assad would have one week to provide a full inventory of his poison gases, munitions and related facilities, and must allow international inspectors into Syria “no later than November.”
“There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” Kerry said.
If the deal succeeds, the inspectors would remove or destroy Syria’s arsenal of about 1,100 tons of blister and nerve gases by the middle of next year. No country has ever been disarmed that quickly, and none amid the chaos of a civil war, so the accelerated effort poses daunting technical, logistic and security challenges.
If Assad fails to comply, Kerry said the United Nations Security Council would consider a resolution to impose punitive measures that could include sanctions. Russia remains opposed to any resolution that would allow armed intervention in Syria, however, so the U.N.'s ability to enforce the disarmament is uncertain and critics said Assad had little incentive to comply.
There was no immediate official response to the agreement from the Syrian government.
President Obama, who has faced bitter criticism for his handling of the Syrian crisis, welcomed the agreement as “an important, concrete step” toward eliminating Assad’s chemical arms “in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner.” But he left open the possibility that he would order military action unilaterally to punish Syria if the deal collapses.
“There are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today,” Obama said in a statement. “And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
The U.S. Navy continues to keep warships armed with cruise missiles off the Syrian coast and an aircraft carrier task force nearby. “We haven’t made any changes to our force posture at this point,” said George Little, a Pentagon spokesman. “The credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the deal “a significant step forward.” Kerry will meet Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on Monday. France has backed a military strike on Assad’s forces but said it would wait for a report by U.N. weapons inspectors, expected as soon as Monday, before adopting a position on the new disarmament plan.
The announcement capped a week of frenzied diplomacy that began when Kerry made a seemingly offhand comment Monday in London. He said the Syrian government could avoid U.S.-led military reprisals for what the U.S. says is its role in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 if it agreed to give up its toxic arsenal, but then added that Assad would never agree. The State Department quickly called Kerry’s comment rhetoric and not a proposal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, which is Assad’s strongest international backer, seized on the comment as a way to avoid U.S. missile strikes on Damascus. It launched the diplomatic push that culminated Saturday.
Chemical weapons experts and Western governments are skeptical of the idea of neutralizing Syria’s scattered stockpiles of mustard, VX and sarin gas while the civil war rages, both because of its technical and security challenges and questions about Assad’s sincerity.
“There’s nothing easy about this,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonproliferation advocacy group. “Every step of this is going to be a logistical nightmare.”
Until Tuesday, the Syrian autocrat denied even possessing chemical weapons. But under pressure from Russia, Assad’s foreign minister notified the U.N. that Syria would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty under which Saturday’s framework would be enforced.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that implements the convention, will issue a plan to send in inspectors and to impound and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons “with the shortest possible deadline,” according to the draft proposal agreed to by U.S. and Russian negotiators.
Obama had called for Assad to surrender power, and some analysts argue that the deal benefits the Syrian leader more than it hurts him. By relying on Assad for cooperation, the arrangement lends credibility to his government and allows him to continue using aircraft, tanks, artillery and other conventional arms in a civil war that already has taken more than 100,000 lives.
“It achieves a situation whereby we are rehabilitating Assad, we are relying on him and we are waiting for him,” said Salman Shaikh, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. “Of course we will try to pressure him, but without the necessary enforcement attitude and tools that are required to do so.”
Assad is “the ultimate winner” because he avoided U.S. airstrikes and got time to win the war, said Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online publication Yezhednevny Zhurnal in Moscow. “The Kremlin is really going out of its way to make Assad comply and make this plan work because as long as it is working, Putin is back on top of things, appearing to save both Assad and President Obama,” he said.
The deal is a setback for Western-backed Syrian armed opposition groups, which had sought U.S. airstrikes to weaken Assad’s defenses and allow rebel forces to regain strategic positions they have lost in recent months.
Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, Gen. Salim Idriss, who heads the U.S.-supported rebel Supreme Military Council, stopped short of calling the deal a betrayal by Washington but rejected it as a delaying tactic by Russia to protect its ally.
“We don’t recognize the Russian initiative and we think that the Russians and the Syrian regime are playing a game to waste time and to win time for the criminal regime in Damascus,” Idriss said.
Though the United States has begun furnishing some rebel groups with machine guns and other light weapons, many analysts believe opposition forces cannot topple Assad without outside military intervention. That prospect seems dimmer now than just a few weeks ago.
It appeared increasingly unlikely that Congress would support use of force in Syria, but critics on Capitol Hill quickly denounced the deal because it had no enforcement component.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two of the staunchest proponents of military action, denounced the agreement as “meaningless” and “an act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”
“It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin,” the senators said in a joint statement.
“Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Others in Congress welcomed a deal that could keep the U.S. from having to intervene militarily.
“Securing these chemical weapons in the middle of the conflict in Syria will be a difficult undertaking, but we stand to achieve more in peace than we ever would have with military action,” said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro). “I am glad to see the diplomatic solution moving forward.”
Kerry offered cautious optimism during a news conference with his Russian counterpart in Geneva.
“Actions will matter more than words,” Kerry said. “In the case of the Assad regime, President Reagan’s old adage about ‘trust but verify'… is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard that says ‘verify and verify.’”
The U.S. and Russia have agreed on an estimate of the amount and type of weapons in Assad’s chemical stockpiles. Inspectors must be granted “an immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria,” Kerry said.
Lavrov added that all actors in the Syrian conflict would be responsible for guaranteeing the safety of international inspectors.
Kerry sought to downplay the perception that his remark Monday that set the diplomatic drive in motion was impromptu.
“I purposefully made the statements that I made in London, and I did indeed say it was impossible and he won’t do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and wanted him to do it,” Kerry said. “The language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test, and we did.”
Bengali reported from Washington and Chu from London. Times staff writers Paul Richter, Richard Simon and David S. Cloud in Washington, Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.