The United States and Russia reached an agreement Thursday on a plan to seize Syria’s chemical weapons in a move the Obama administration deemed a diplomatic breakthrough, even though the resolution stops short of triggering military action should Syria fail to comply.
The draft U.S.-Russian resolution received support from fellow permanent members France, China and Britain, and it was put before the full 15-member U.N. Security Council on Thursday night. The draft also was to be submitted to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is expected to add its own text to the resolution, Russian officials said.
U.S. officials said the resolution deems Syria’s chemical arsenal a threat to international peace and security and makes it legally binding for President Bashar Assad’s government to comply with an expedited plan to hand over the weapons to international authorities for destruction.
The tricky part, however, is in language about what happens should Syria fail to fulfill its end of the deal, which includes refraining from the use or transport of chemical weapons, and allowing international authorities unfettered access to related facilities.
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U.S. negotiators gave up the demand of military force, authorized under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, as a consequence for noncompliance, compromising with the Russians on softer wording that says the Security Council would be “authorized to impose measures under Chapter 7,” according to diplomats and news reports.
That means no punitive measures would kick in automatically. Instead, chemical weapons authorities would have to report any alleged violations to the Security Council, which would have to determine whether Syria had in fact failed to comply with the resolution. And even after that, the Security Council would have to agree on the appropriate punishment under Chapter 7, which allows for measures other than military action.
Translation: The mechanism for responding to alleged noncompliance gives Assad’s chief ally, Russia, at least two opportunities to block punitive consequences at the Security Council.
“There will be no enforcement in line with Chapter 7,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Still, U.S. diplomats described the draft resolution as a victory because it was the first time Russia, with a record of repeatedly blocking attempts to pressure Assad via the Security Council, had agreed to any such measure.
Russian and Chinese vetoes have kept the Security Council paralyzed and unable to issue a unified response in more than two years of the Syrian civil war, which has killed 100,000 and displaced millions.
“This is a breakthrough arrived at through hard-fought diplomacy,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because it involves sensitive diplomacy. “Just two weeks ago, no one thought this was in the vicinity of possible.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., confirmed the deal Thursday on her official Twitter account, with a post that said the draft creates “a new norm” against the use of chemical weapons. In another tweet, Power wrote that the resolution obligates Syria to “give up CW they used on their people.”
However, the final draft reportedly did not assign blame for the poison gas attack that killed hundreds of Syrians in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. A U.N. inspection team’s report on the attack in the Ghouta area offered evidence that pointed to regime use of the banned agent sarin, but the U.N. mandate didn’t include determining culpability.
The U.S.-Russian draft also specifies that Chapter 7 consequences could come from violations by “any party,” meaning that the resolution was binding for both the regime and the myriad rebel groups it’s fighting.
The Obama administration repeatedly has said that only the Assad regime possesses chemical weapons capabilities. The Assad government and the Russians have countered with claims that the opposition has used such munitions.