On the third day of talks between the United States and Russia in Geneva, Switzerland about Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the two countries came to an agreement on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 to destroy Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014. The agreement averted a limited military strike U.S. President Barack Obama was planning in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack using sarin gas on Aug. 21, 2013 ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near the city of Damascus that left 1429 Syrian citizens, including 400 children dead.
For three day and nights U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and their foreign policy and expert delegations had concentrated meetings at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva trying to make a deal to rid Syria of the weapons without resorting to a military retaliation. Up until almost the last minute of negotiations the U.S. would not remove the threat of an imminent military retaliation off the table, until a satisfactory plan and agreement was within reach.
The agreement would require an accelerated disarmament program would first require Syria to list their weapon stockpile within a week. Then it requires the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' to take control with weapons inspectors to head into Syria by November to take stock of their chemical weapons arsenal. Some of the weapons would be destroyed in Syria, primarily the equipment used to create the weapons, while the remainder, most of the weapons would be removed to another location under international control, where they would be destroyed. The ambitious plan will require the weapons removal destruction to be completed by mid 2014, speeding up a process that usually would take a couple of years to accomplish.
Supposedly, Syria has chemical weapons at 45 locations; consisting of 1,000 metric tons of weapons, and additionally blister agents, which are sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin, which had been used in the Aug. 21 attack.
The agreement also is a step forward in ending the deadly Syrian Civil War, with planned peace conferences after Syria's disarmament.
Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov held a press conference to announce the agreement. Kerry kept up the tough talk about Syria, and stated; "The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitment. There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime." Continuing Kerry emphasized the U.S. will confim throughout the process that it is being complied with, saying; "Ultimately, perhaps more so than anywhere in the world, actions will matter more than words. In the case of the Assad regime, President Reagan’s old adage about 'Trust but verify' – 'Doveryai no proveryai', I think, is the saying – that is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard that says, 'Verify and verify.'"
The agreement allows for the United Nations Security Council meeting in New York to create a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N, charter that will allow the use of military force should Syria violate the terms of the agreement. However, if it would become necessary to resort to a military intervention, Russia would as it has three times before vote down any resolution. Any violations will be dealt with by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Executive Council's recommendation to the U.N. Security Council.
Still any violation would make it easier for the U.S. to authorize a military strike. Kerry speaking at the agreement announcement stated; "There is an agreement between Russia and the United States that non-compliance is going to be held accountable within the Security Council under Chapter 7. What remedy is chosen is subject to the debate within the council, which is always true. But there's a commitment to impose measures."
The U.N. inspector's report on the chemical weapons attack is supposed to be released on Monday, Sept. 16 and will prove that the Syrian government did in fact use chemical weapons on their citizens.
President Obama issued a statement after the agreement framework was announced, saying; "I welcome the progress made between the United States and Russia through our talks in Geneva, which represents an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria's chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed. 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. The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments."
President Obama ensured to keep the threat of a possible military retaliation on the line, if the agreement fails to be upheld. He stated; "While we have made important progress, much more work remains to be done. The United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."
Earlier in the day the President released his weekly address about pursuing diplomacy as opposed to immediate military action in response to Syria's usage of chemical weapons. The weekly address was meant to follow up on the address to the nation he delivered on Tuesday evening. Obama recounted the developments from this past week and elements of arguments from his speech from Tuesday concluding; "We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children. But if there is any chance of achieving that goal without resorting to force, then I believe we have a responsibility to pursue that path."
The agreement ends a three week showdown over the deadly August chemical weapons attack, which initially was leading up to a military response from the U.S., France and the United Kingdom, until the U.K. House of Commons voted down any military involvement. This led Obama to announce on Aug. 31, that he would pursue military action however, only with a Congressional vote of approval.
In the days after President Obama however, was having a difficult time garnering support at home from the American public and Congress who were skeptical after the longs wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama faced just as much of a cold shoulder from the international community while trying to gain support for the attack at the G20 Summit, where he could only garner the support of 10 countries for a strong response. Obama continued his campaign to garner support at home which included six interviews with major network news anchors and a televised address to the nation on Tuesday evening, Sept, 10.
The emphasis turned to a diplomatic option after Kerry made an off handed remark on Monday, Sept. 9 stating the way to avert a military response was for Assad to "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community." This prompted Russia to propose a diplomatic solution that would avert a military strike, which consisted of Syria handing over all its chemical weapons to international control for destruction.
The negotiations between the United States and Russia also appeared rocky throughout the three days. As the talks began on Thursday, Sept. 12 Russian President Vladmir Putin had an op-ed published in the New York Times which was meant as a rebuttal to Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday evening. Putin questioned the United States' "exceptionalism" a term President Obama had used in his address, where he had stated; "I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth." Putin responded, writing; "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
The op-ed which most American politicians found insulting threatened to derail the disarmament talks. Just as much of a threat to the talks continuing was Syrian President Assad's insistence that the American military threat be removed from the discussions. Too much was riding on an agreement for either side to leave the table. However, on Thursday, Sept. 12 when Syrian President Assad agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty signed by 189 countries banning the use of chemical weapons, it was a step in the right direction towards an eventual agreement. Syria's joining the ban will take effect on Oct. 14, 2013.
The diplomatic solution allows both Russia and the United States to claim victory in the crisis. The United States and President Obama was saved from continuing to press Congress to authorize an unpopular limited strike that as of this week was bound for failure, which would have been an embarrassment for Obama and American leadership on the world's stage. Russia emerged as a leader in a crisis, increasing their prestige in the world's standing, at the very least evening the playing field with the U.S. All the while they were able to save the regime of their ally Syrian President Assad, who unfortunately is also claiming victory in the agreement, because he retains his power in Syria without repercussions for his actions.
Despite the international retreat from original military response and other drawbacks, the United States is counting the deal as a victory of "peace through strength" allowing President Obama to again to turn his direction to pressing domestic matters; the economy, budget, debt ceiling limit and the implementation of his health care program.
Secretary of State John Kerry's Remarks With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov After Their Meeting, Intercontinental Hotel; Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 14, 2013.
- Document: Framework of the Agreement
Secretary of State John Kerry's Remarks With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Intercontinental Hotel; Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 12, 2013.
- Vladimir V. Putin: A Plea for Caution From Russia, New York Times, Opinion, Sept, 12, 2013.