U.S. and Russia Reach Ambitious Syria Chemical Weapons Deal

Surprising skeptics, deal calls for UN inspections by November—but may also bolster Assad

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Larry Downing / REUTERS

Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shake hands after making statements following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva September 14, 2013.

A high-stakes diplomatic summit aimed at averting a military strike has yielded a plan between the United States and Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and production capability by “in the first half of 2014,” according to a framework agreement released by the State Department Saturday.

After two days of meetings in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they intend to formalize their deal as soon as possible at the United Nations Security Council. It would require Syria to provide a detailed list of its vast chemical weapons arsenal to the UN within a week, and to allow weapons inspectors access to chemical sites by November. Inspectors must be given “the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria,” according to the framework.

With Russia still opposed to any U.S. or U.N. military action against Syria, critics quickly noted the deal’s lack of clear enforcement provisions. “Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. Still, the agreement brought relief to those who who think policing Syria should be a UN problem, instead of a congressional one. “I’m still reviewing the details and believe Syria’s willingness to follow through is very much an open question, but I remain supportive of a strong diplomatic solution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons,” Corker said. Many in Washington had doubted a deal could be reached at all.

Implementing the agreement could be a major challenge. General Salim Idris, head of Syria’s organized opposition, told TIME in an interview on Sept. 10 that although his forces have no chemical weapons, he would help UN inspectors in “any way needed.” But Idris opposes the Russia deal and posed a key question: How to assure secuity for the inspectors? “Syria is now in war. How will the United Nations inspectors move about the country when the country is in war?” Idris said. “The regime is lying, trust me, the regime is lying.”

The framework did not address Assad’s demand in a Russian television interview on Friday that in exchange for his cooperation the U.S. stop arming the Syrian rebels. And Assad could drag the process out for years, as former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein did, if at any point he stops cooperating. Syria experts worry that the deal could empower Assad and undermine the opposition. “If [Assad] becomes our interlocutor how do we square that with our statement that he’s no longer legitimate? How do we square that with our statements that he has no future role in Syria?” says Steve Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “In effect this reinforces his future role in Syria.”

The deal comes less than a month after the U.S. alleges that Assad used Sarin gas to kill anywhere from 400 to 1,600 people, according to various estimates, in a Damascus suburb. Assad and the Russians accuse the opposition of carrying out the attack, even though it occurred in an opposition-controlled area. The attack, the worst chemical weapons atrocity in more than 30 years, spurred international outrage and the U.S. moved five warships off the coast of Damascus in preparation for a punitive strike before President Barack Obama decided to go to Congress seeking a mandate. In the meantime, Russia offered this deal as an alternative and, facing enormous opposition from voters and Congress to unilateral strikes, Obama pursued the diplomatic path.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s spokesman said Ban welcomes the deal and “expresses his fervent hope that the agreement will, first, prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria and, second, help pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people.” Previous UN Security Council votes on Syria had failed because Russia, a close ally of Assad’s, had blocked U.S. and European attempts to address the civil war.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Kerry in a call on Saturday: “The onus is now on the Assad regime to comply with this agreement in full. The international community, including Russia, must hold the regime to account. This includes doing everything we can to stop the continuing bloodshed in Syria, bringing all sides together to agree a political solution to the conflict.” Kerry is schedule to meet with Hague and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on Monday to discuss the deal.

The Pentagon estimated two years ago that it would take 80,000 troops on the ground to secure Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Assuming Assad’s cooperation, this secures the weapons without risk to U.S. or allied forces. On the other hand, the deal does nothing to address Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and a civil war that has killed more than 110,000 people and displaced more than two million refugees.