"If diplomacy fails," President Obama said, "the United… (Evan Vucci / AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Saturday that the U.S.-Russia deal to identify and seize Syria’s chemical weapons was “an important, concrete step” but left open the possibility that the United States would use military force if the agreement collapsed.
“The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments,” Obama said of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
The president's statement came just hours after Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the deal in Geneva.
The framework calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to turn over a list of its chemical weapons, munitions and related facilities within a week, and to allow international inspectors into the country “no later than November.” Assad’s chemical arsenal would be destroyed -- perhaps at sites outside of Syria -- by mid-2014.
“This framework provides the opportunity for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious and verifiable manner, which could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and the world,” Obama said.
He added: “If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
Obama said the diplomatic breakthrough came because his administration had threatened military force in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,000 civilians. The Obama administration blamed Assad’s forces in the incident; the Syrian government maintains that rebels carried out the strike to frame the military.
Obama abruptly backed off his threat of airstrikes last month and said he would first seek authorization for the use of force from Congress, which has been extremely skeptical of the idea. Russia then seized on a seemingly offhand remark from Kerry on Monday that opened the door to diplomacy if Assad acknowledged his chemical arsenal and turned it over to international control.
Under the U.S.-Russia agreement, if Assad fails to meet the benchmarks, a resolution would be sought at the U.N. Security Council to enforce compliance, Kerry said. Punitive measures could include sanctions, but Russia, a permanent Security Council member, has staunchly opposed stricter measures, such as armed intervention.
Obama said the United States would continue working with Security Council members to ensure penalties if Assad doesn’t follow through.
“The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere,” Obama said. “We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children.”
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