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Chemical weapons accord outlined on Syria

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 10:28 p.m.

GENEVA — The United States and Russia agreed Saturday on an outline for the identification and seizure of Syrian chemical weapons and said Syria must turn over an accounting of its arsenal within a week.

The agreement will be backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply, Secretary of State John Kerry said.

The first international inspection of Syrian chemical weapons will take place by November, with destruction to begin next year, Kerry said.

“Providing this effort is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people, but also to their neighbors, to the region” and the rest of the world, he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that the documents constitute an “agreed proposal” that does not yet have the force of law.

Senior Obama administration officials had said Friday that the White House would not press for U.N. authorization to use force against Syria if it reneges on any agreement to give up its chemical weapons.

One fear throughout the more than two-year civil war has been that the weapons would fall under the control of militant groups or that Syrian President Bashar Assad, if desperate enough, could sell them to the highest bidder.

Gen. Salim Idriss, the Syrian rebel commander, reiterated his rejection of the Russian initiative, saying that it effectively leaves Assad unpunished for an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Aug. 21.

“What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” Idriss asked, speaking at a televised news conference in Istanbul. “We feel let down by the international community. We don't have any hope.”

Idriss said the United States and other international allies of the Syrian opposition are backing the Russian deal despite knowing that it is a ploy to protect the Syrian government. Russia and Syria are “playing games” to buy more time, the general said, adding that with the focus now on chemical weapons, the Syrians killed by other weapons such as Scud missiles have been forgotten.

Idriss said the rebels would facilitate safe passage for international chemical weapons inspectors in Syria but there would be no cease-fire.

Mosab Abu Qutada, a spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus, said a poisonous gas attack on Thursday wounded 15 people in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. The claims could not be verified. Video footage posted online by activists showed men struggling to breathe.

“The regime gained a victory,” Abu Qutada said. “It now believes that the whole international community can't punish it or stop it, so it will do it all.”

Abu Qutada said the Syrian army's efforts to retake rebel-held suburbs of Damascus where the Aug 21 attack took place have escalated in recent days, with the government gaining some territory in the Al-Marj area of Eastern Ghouta.

American officials traveling with Kerry said the United States believes the Syrian government's 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons material are housed among at least 45 sites, about half of which now contain material that could be used as weapons. U.S. intelligence has tracked movement of some of the material during the war, the officials said.

The stockpile contains both blister agents such as mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin, the gas believed responsible for the Aug. 21 attack, one official said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss some previously classified assessments and to describe the closed-door negotiations in Geneva.

Destruction would take place within Syria and probably in one or more other countries, another official said.

U.S. officials acknowledged that the proposed schedule calls for destruction much faster than has taken place in other countries that have voluntarily given up weapons of mass destruction, such as Libya. The rapid pace is largely in recognition of the ongoing civil war and the need to rid the battlefield of such weapons, the officials said.

It was also clear that in the U.S. view the tight schedule, which one official called “daunting,” is partly designed to hold Russia responsible for progress.

It was further clear that the two sponsoring nations disagreed about how the United Nations could enforce the pact. Details were intentionally left vague, but Russia has not shifted from its long-standing opposition to a U.N. mandate for international military force inside Syria.

That means that punishing Syria for failing to comply with the agreement would probably take the form of U.N. sanctions or other nonmilitary means.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Navy ships positioned to carry out a strike if one is ordered have not been called off.

“The credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress, and it's important that the Assad regime lives up to its obligations under the framework agreement,” Little said.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who are among Obama's sharpest foreign policy critics and support greater U.S. assistance for Syria's rebels, said the agreement will embolden enemies such as Iran.

“What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement: They see it as an act of provocative weakness on America's part,” the senators said in a joint statement. “We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., credited the president's “steadfast leadership” for “making significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

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