GENEVA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russia and the United States put aside bitter differences over Syria to strike a deal yesterday that by removing President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal may avert US military action against him.
After three days of talks in Geneva, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded Assad account for his secret stockpile within a week and let international inspectors eliminate all the weapons by the middle of next year – an “ambitious” target, Kerry said.
The accord leaves major questions unanswered, including how feasible such a major disarmament can be in the midst of civil war and at what point Washington might yet make good on a continued threat to attack if it thinks Assad is reneging. Under the Geneva pact, the United States and Russia will back a UN enforcement mechanism. But its terms are not yet set. Russia is unlikely to support the military option that President Barack Obama said he was still ready to use.
“If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” Obama said. “The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments.”
To that end, the Pentagon said US military forces were still positioned to strike, if ordered.
But for Assad’s opponents, who two weeks ago thought US missile strikes were imminent in response to a gas attack on rebel territory, the deal was a blow to hopes of swinging the war their way. Kerry and Lavrov said it could herald broader peace talks, as warplanes hit rebel positions again near Damascus.
The accord, however, was as much about US-Russian ties as it was about Syria. The conflict has chilled relations to levels recalling the Cold War.
In reaching a bilateral deal after what one US official described as three days of “hard-fought” debate, Moscow and Washington can each count benefits.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it brings management of the Syrian crisis back to the United Nations. For Obama, it solves the dilemma created by Congress’ reluctance to back military strikes that he was preparing without a UN mandate.