(CNN) — Russia and the United States announced Saturday that they have reached a groundbreaking deal on a framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, after talks in Switzerland.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood side-by-side as they set out a series of steps the Syria government must follow.
Syria must submit within one week a comprehensive list of its chemical weapons stockpile, Kerry said. International inspectors must be on the ground no later than November, he said.
The framework also envisages the destruction of all Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of next year.
The best way to ensure international control of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will be to remove as much as is feasible and to destroy it outside of Syria if possible, the framework document says.
If Syria does not comply with the procedures to eliminate its chemical weapons, the threat of force could be included in a draft U.N. Security Council resolution, Kerry said Saturday.
“We’ve committed to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Security Council,” he said.
Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter leaves open the ultimate possibility for the Security Council to consider the use of force if Syria fails to comply, but Russia, which has veto power on the council, is very unlikely to agree to that. Other options include the use of sanctions.
Questioned by reporters, Kerry backed off the idea of force, saying he won’t specify what the remedy “might be for circumstances we don’t even know yet.”
He did say that President Barack Obama reserves the right to defend the United States and U.S. interests. However, he said, “the president also wants to find a diplomatic solution.”
Kerry said the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must allow “immediate and unfettered” access to international inspectors. He said there was no place for games or avoidance by al-Assad.
But Kerry said there shouldn’t be a problem reaching Syria’s chemical weapons sites provided the al-Assad regime cooperates, since Syria has moved its chemical weapons into areas where it has tighter control.
This will make it easier for U.N. inspectors to get to them despite the ongoing civil war, he said.
The United States and Russia have reached a shared assessment on the amount and type of chemical weapons possessed by the al-Assad regime, Kerry said.
News of the deal came after talks extended into a third day, following late-night discussions Friday.
‘Language of diplomacy’
Kerry praised Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov for seizing the initiative that resulted in the Geneva talks being called at short notice this week.
And he dismissed media speculation that his comment in London on Monday — when he said that al-Assad could turn over his chemical arsenal to the international community within a week, “but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously” — had been a gaffe. That remark prompted Russia to call the talks in Geneva that started Thursday.
“I purposely made the statements that I made in London and I did indeed say it wasn’t possible and he won’t do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and wanted him to do it,” Kerry said.
“The language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test and we did.”
He and Lavrov had discussed the possibility of Syria giving up its chemical weapons before he made that remark, Kerry said, and it was subsequently discussed by Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg.
Lavrov said the framework agreement was only the beginning of the road. But, he said, the Geneva talks had reached their aim of avoiding military intervention in Syria.
Syrian opposition fears
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France welcomes the U.S.-Russian agreement, saying it “constitutes an important step forward.”
France will hold a meeting on Monday with the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss the details of the framework and look at the conditions to approve the procedures and implement them, Fabius said.
He said France would take into account a report by United Nations inspectors on the August 21 attack outside Damascus, expected to he published on Monday, in stating its position, Fabius said.
But the Syrian opposition struck a note of skepticism.
Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told reporters in Istanbul: “We have information that the regime began to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and to Iraq.”
He warned that al-Assad would give up some of his chemical weapons arsenal but would also keep some, and “then use it against our people and the FSA and then he will come out and accuse terrorists, and he will say that he gave up everything he has.”
The Syrian government refers to the opposition fighters as terrorists and has previously accused them of chemical weapons use.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition is due to appoint a new interim prime minister Saturday, Khalid Saleh, head of the Syrian National Coalition’s media office, told reporters earlier in Istanbul.
On Friday, Kerry and Lavrov signaled their intent to meet again, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.
The prospect of yet another round of negotiations in the next few weeks pointed to a potentially bigger endgame for the United States and Russia in the hastily arranged meeting they began on Thursday — to restart parallel talks on the broader issue of ending the Syrian civil war.
Obama has threatened to act alone, if necessary, and his administration credits that threat with Russia’s surprise proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons arsenal to international control.
He last week called for the international community to take action, including a potential military strike, for what the United States and allies call a chemical weapons attack by al-Assad’s forces last month outside Syria’s capital that they say killed more than 1,400 people.
Al-Assad and other Syrian officials have vehemently denied their forces were responsible, despite assertions by Obama and others to the contrary.
Before Saturday’s announcement, senior U.S. administration officials told reporters on condition of not being identified the main sticking point was what consequences al-Assad and his government should face over their alleged chemical weapons use.
Russia has been strongly opposed to any use of force against Syria.
Outside of the United Nations, U.S. administration officials insisted Friday they would not take the military threat off the table.
A senior defense official said there has been “no change” in the military’s planning or readiness levels and commanders have not been instructed to change their “posture” in any way.
Ban: ‘Overwhelming report’
It seems likely the United Nations — and especially its Security Council, including permanent members the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — will now play a key role in the international community’s response to Syria.
And a report by its inspectors on the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus could be pivotal in guiding where countries come down on the issue.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to present the report to the Security Council at 11 a.m. ET Monday, three diplomatic sources said. Ban said Friday that he believes it “will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used.”
The big questions are by whom and, if that’s settled, what the world should do about it.
Russia has stood by its longtime ally Syria, challenging the validity of the U.S. claims. At the same time, and as the threat of U.S.-led strikes loomed, Moscow raised its proposal on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and working through the U.N. — this after, time and again, blocking U.N. action involving Syria.
Al-Assad quickly agreed, leading to the talks between Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva that began Thursday. Syria also told the United Nations on Thursday that it has sent the paperwork for joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such armaments.
The Syrian submission was being reviewed by U.N. lawyers. If deemed sufficient, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would register it and Syria would officially be a member state in the convention.
The convention would become legally binding on Syria 30 days after it formally joins, meaning al-Assad’s government would have to permit inspections at that time. Another 30 days after that, Syria would have to declare its chemical weapons stockpiles.
But the framework set out by Kerry and Lavrov imposes a much tighter time frame, of only seven days.
Some U.S. intelligence analysts believe it’s known where most of Syria’s chemical arsenal is stored, according to two U.S. officials familiar with internal discussions. But others say the United States might not be able to verify the location of up to 50% of them.
At the State Department on Friday, spokeswoman Marie Harf said that “verifying, accounting for securing and destroying a large stockpile of chemical weapons takes time,” adding that “it’s very difficult to do, particularly in an active war zone.”
Meanwhile, as the diplomatic efforts continue, those on the ground are caught up in the misery of the Syrian conflict.
The U.N. estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the civil war began in 2011, in addition to more than 2 million becoming refugees and over 4 million being displaced within Syria.