UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously late Friday to approve an ambitious plan requiring Syria to surrender its chemical arms for destruction, but the pact does not spell out what penalties the government in Damascus might face if it does not comply.
U.S. and European diplomats concede that some of their toughest wording aimed at compelling Syria to obey the council’s demands and holding perpetrators to account for using chemical weapons was removed from the final resolution at Russia’s insistence.
The agreement binds Syria to turn over its chemical arsenal but provides no automatic punishment if it balks. Enforcement would require further negotiation, setting up the prospect of further tussles between the U.S. and Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has fervently opposed the threat of force.
Still, the measure constituted the first legally binding action on Syria from the Security Council since the Syrian government launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters more than two years ago. Since then, the conflict has descended into a bloody civil war, leaving more than 100,000 dead and threatening to engulf the region in sectarian conflict. Russia had previously blocked all attempts to punish or condemn Assad at the Security Council, which can order mandatory sanctions or military action.
“This is the first hopeful news on Syria for a long time,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after the vote. “Tonight, the international community has delivered.”
The White House claimed victory, citing the prospect of weapons inspectors entering Syria as soon as this week to begin the work of auditing and dismantling the country’s chemical stockpile. “This is something that we have long sought,” President Barack Obama said at the White House on Friday. The deal worked out last week on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly will be “legally binding” and enforceable, Obama said, with “consequences for Syria’s failure to meet what has been set forth in this resolution.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also claimed a diplomatic success. “No concessions have been made,” he told Voice of Russia radio, according to the Reuters news agency. “The main thing is that the automatic use of Chapter 7 has been ruled out.”
That referred to the section of the U.N. Charter allowing for sanctions or military force if a country fails to comply with a resolution. Sanctions or other punishments are still available to the Security Council if it finds Syria has failed to meet its commitments, but the penalties are not automatic.
The resolution says Syria “shall not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons,” or transfer them to others. In the event of noncompliance, the resolution says, the Security Council can “impose measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.”
Assad agreed to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014 under Russian pressure and following global outrage over an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that the U.S. said killed about 1,400 people. It was the deadliest chemical attack worldwide in 25 years. Washington and its allies blamed the Assad government for the attack; Assad and his Russian backers said the rebels fighting the regime were responsible.
Ban announced Friday that long-sought peace talks aimed at bringing a political transition to Syria are tentatively planned for November.
“We are aiming for a conference in mid-November,” Ban told reporters after the resolution was adopted.
He added that U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will carry out the preparatory work needed in the weeks ahead to bring together the opposition and the Assad regime.
“All violence must end. All the guns must fall silent,” Ban stressed as he hailed the “historic resolution” on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, stressing it was not “a license to kill” with conventional arms.
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, said his government had been ready to go to the Geneva talks for some time. “The Syrian delegation a year ago gave the Russians the name of the delegation and the composition of the delegation,” he told reporters, refusing to reveal who will head the regime’s side.
A first peace conference was held in June 2012 and led to a six-point cease-fire call, which has never been implemented.
Washington and Moscow jointly proposed such a peace conference last spring, but it has been repeatedly postponed as Assad’s forces gained the upper hand in the civil war. The fight remains an effective stalemate, however, with neither side strong enough to quickly defeat the other. More than 100,000 people have died, according to U.N. estimates.
Obama called the chemical weapons deal a “potentially huge victory for the international community” and said it would not have been possible without the threat he had made to launch a limited attack on Syria in protest of its alleged use of chemical weapons. The deal hastily proposed by Russia this month averted that attack.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted Friday on a plan to send experts to inspect Syria’s toxic munitions, which U.S. experts have described as a mix of nerve agents such as sarin and blister agents such as sulfur mustard. Approval by The Hague-based OPCW cleared the way for the Security Council vote in New York.
The Syrian regime is required to provide international chemical weapons inspectors “immediate and unfettered” access to any site in the country starting Tuesday, and destruction of its chemical weapons production and mixing equipment is to be completed by Nov. 1, according to the OPCW plan.
Syria is also required to provide the disarmament agency with a complete list of all chemicals, precursors, toxins and munitions in its chemical weapons stockpiles within seven days. In addition, Syria has a week to provide the agency with “the location of all of its chemical weapons, chemical weapons storage facilities, chemical weapons production facilities, including mixing and filling facilities, and chemical weapons research and development facilities, providing specific geographic coordinates.”
The OPCW’s council is scheduled to produce by Nov. 15 a timeline that details a series of disarmament milestones that Syria will be required to meet in order to “complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”