Secretary of State John F. Kerry speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei… (Philippe Desmazes / AFP/Getty…)
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.