Last updated: 15 September, 2013

Damascus calls US-Russia deal victory for Syria

A US-Russian initiative to remove Syria’s chemical weapons is a “victory” that averts war, a Syrian minister said Sunday, even as Washington and Paris warned that military action remains an option.

“On one hand, it helps the Syrians emerge from the crisis and on the other it has allowed for averting war against Syria,” Minister of State for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar told Russian news agency Ria Novosti of the deal.

“It’s a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”

His remarks came as US Secretary of State John Kerry met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to brief him on the plan and emerged with a word of warning for Damascus.

“The threat of force remains, the threat is real,” Kerry said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Netanyahu.

Washington is seeking to bolster international support for the agreement signed in Geneva on Saturday, which demands rapid action from Damascus.

The ambitious plan to dismantle and destroy Syria’s chemical arms stockpile — one of the largest in the world — by mid-2014 was thrashed out over three days in Geneva between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

It gives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a week to hand over details of his regime’s arsenal of the internationally banned arms in order to avert unspecified sanctions and the threat of US-led military strikes.

It also specifies there must be immediate access for arms control experts and that inspections of what the US says is some 45 sites linked to the Syrian chemical weapons programme must be completed by November.

French President Francois Hollande, whose country has taken a hard line against Assad’s regime, said the deal was an “important step” but “not an end point.”

Speaking live on TF1 television, Hollande stressed the option of a military intervention must remain on the table, adding that a UN vote on a resolution on Syria could take place by the end of next week.

Syria’s information minister said Damascus will commit to the plan once it has United Nations approval.

“Syria is committing itself to whatever comes from the UN,” Omran al-Zohbi told Britain’s ITN television.

“We accept the Russian plan to get rid of our chemical weapons. In fact we’ve started preparing our list.”

The deal won the backing of China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, which like Russia has vetoed several UN resolutions on Syria.

“This agreement will enable tensions in Syria to be eased,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his visiting French counterpart Laurent Fabius who will meet Lavrov on Tuesday in Moscow.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called the deal “a step closer to a political solution” to the conflict that has cost more than 110,00 lives since March 2011.

— ‘We have more hope now’ —

The Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad have rejected the deal, warning it would not halt the conflict.

“Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid-2014, to continue being killed every day and to accept (the deal) just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014?” asked Free Syrian Army chief General Selim Idriss.

But in Damascus there was hope the end of the conflict may be in sight. “We have more hope now, after this agreement,” beauty salon owner Muna Ibo said.

However, experts said the deal would be difficult — if not impossible — to implement.

The mid-2014 deadline for the destruction of stockpiles “seems to be a complete fantasy,” Olivier Lepick of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris told AFP.

“Given the civil war, I don’t think it can happen.”

On Monday Kerry will be in Paris for talks with Hollande, Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and their Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.

While Paris has welcomed the Kerry-Lavrov plan, it is still determined that Assad be tried for war crimes.

Also on Monday, the United Nations is due to release its investigation of an attack near Damascus on August 21 in which Washington says Assad’s forces unleashed sarin gas, killing some 1,400 people.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said the UN inspectors’ report would provide “overwhelming” confirmation chemical weapons were used.

Kerry said the joint plan would be encapsulated in a Security Council resolution drawn up under Chapter Seven of the UN charter, which provides for enforcement through sanctions, including the possible use of military force.

But with Russia strongly opposed to the use of military threats against its long-term ally Syria, Kerry acknowledged it would be up to debate in the Security Council over what sanctions to impose.

In the latest violence, a mortar round exploded near a provincial headquarters in the Marjeh district of Damascus on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, without reporting casualties.

It said the attack was swiftly followed by an air strike on rebel positions.

Also Sunday, the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front said in an Internet statement it had attacked three villages in Homs province last Tuesday and killed 30 Alawites, the sect to which Assad belongs.