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Russia says it will back U.N. resolution on Syria chemical weapons

The U.S. calls the draft a breakthrough, even though it stops short of threatening Syrian President Bashar Assad with force.

September 26, 2013|By Paul Richter and Shashank Bengali

UNITED NATIONS — Russia agreed Thursday to back a United Nations Security Council resolution that demands that Syria relinquish its chemical weapons by mid-2014, but stops short of threatening President Bashar Assad with military force if he doesn't comply.

The Obama administration hailed the draft agreement as a breakthrough despite the U.S. failure after nearly two weeks to persuade Russia, Assad's strongest international backer, to support a resolution that would invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter and could authorize the use of force or other action if Syria doesn't hand over its chemical arms.

If Assad doesn't comply, the decision on how to punish him would go back to the Security Council, where Russia has veto power, for further consideration. Moscow has steadfastly opposed military intervention in Syria and has questioned a U.N. investigation that determined chemical weapons were used in an attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. The U.S. and its allies maintain that the U.N. report proves the Assad government was behind the attack, but Russia has remained unconvinced.

Without the threat of force behind the deal, it's unclear whether Assad will fulfill his promise to give up his stockpile of illicit chemical warfare agents, one of the world's largest. U.S. officials say Syria possesses more than 1,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, including mustard, sarin and VX gases.

Supporters of the resolution say it would help advocates of strong penalties build support for action in the Security Council — or outside it — if Assad doesn't live up to the disarmament deal.

A Western diplomat, who requested anonymity in describing the draft resolution, said the document calls chemical weapons use a threat to international peace and security, condemns the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, commits to endorsing the disarmament plan by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and demands accountability if Assad reneges.

But it doesn't specify how Assad would be held accountable and includes no reference to the International Criminal Court, the court in The Hague that hears cases involving war crimes and genocide, the official said.

U.S. officials say Assad's forces have fired artillery rockets or other munitions filled with chemical agents at least a dozen times against insurgents battling to overthrow him. The Aug. 21 attack, which involved sarin nerve gas, was the largest by far.

The State Department said the text that the five permanent Security Council members agreed to Thursday was "strong, binding and enforceable" and united international opinion against the use of chemical weapons.

"This is historic and unprecedented because it puts oversight of the Assad regime's compliance under international control," said a statement attributed to an unidentified senior State Department official.

"Equally as important, it makes absolutely clear that failure of the Assad regime to comply will have consequences," the statement said.

U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted that the resolution legally obligated Syria to give up its chemical weapons and "creates a new norm" against the use of poison gas.

The Security Council — its permanent members are the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, along with 10 rotating members — was to discuss the draft resolution in a closed session late Thursday. A vote could occur by the weekend.

Diplomats said the draft resolution roughly mirrors the framework agreement reached Sept. 14 by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

That deal required Assad to reveal all his chemical weapons and production facilities to international inspectors, allow inspectors into Syria by the end of November, and agree to have the entire toxic arsenal seized or destroyed by mid-2014.

Assad met the first benchmark, submitting what officials have called a "serious" initial disclosure of his weapons program Sept. 20 to the OPCW. The international organization monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that Assad signed this month and that bans the production, storage or use of poison gas.

Details of how the weapons would be impounded or destroyed have yet to be finalized. U.S. officials said the OPCW, which is based in The Hague, would soon determine those specifics in a plan that would closely match the terms set out in the Security Council resolution.

"These two texts are a matched set," a senior U.S. official said this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. "They have to be congruent. They have to be mutually supporting."

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