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Liberman urges caution after deal on Syria chemical arms

MK says Assad’s true intentions will be known within a week, and Israel will not sign UN convention until region ‘looks like Benelux’

Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference in the Knesset on June 10, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference in the Knesset on June 10, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

MK Avigdor Liberman said a US-Russian deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons could be a positive development, but urged caution until it is actually carried out.

“Theoretically, it’s good for Israel,” Liberman, who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, said in an interview with Army Radio Sunday morning.

He cautioned, however, that “the true test is the implementation. Assad has a record of manipulation…Not long ago, he denied that Syria has chemical weapons at all.”

After days of intense negotiations, the United States and Russia came to terms Saturday on a framework to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and impose UN penalties if the Assad government fails to comply.

Damascus has until September 21 to submit “a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and local and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”

“We will be able to verify, or understand, what Assad’s intentions are in another week…” said Liberman. “Israel has a pretty darn good idea of what Assad has and what he doesn’t have.”

Liberman praised the American effort, and said Israel must welcome it. However, he dismissed any chance that Israel, one of seven non-signatories to the chemical weapons convention (including Syria), would sign on.

“Israel deals with more threats than any other country,” he said, adding that Israel would not consider signing “until the Middle East turns into a new Middle East, and looks a lot like Benelux.”

Liberman, a Moldovan-born former foreign minister who has been an advocate of stronger ties with Russia, also raised the possibility of the deal leading to a broader agreement between Russia and the US on the conflict in Syria.

The effect the agreement has on the balance of power in the civil war in Syria should not concern Israel, Liberman argued. “The internal Syrian turmoil is not our issue, and Israeli must not get dragged into it.”

“We must be alert, attentive, and must not enter euphoria, nor panic.”

Under the framework agreement, international inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed.

The deal calls for all components of the chemical weapons program to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.

“Ensuring that a dictator’s wanton use of chemical weapons never again comes to pass, we believe is worth pursuing and achieving,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Noncompliance by the Assad government or any other party would be referred to the 15-nation UN Security Council by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That group oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria this week agreed to join.

However, the CWC is already difficult to verify and enforce. Russia itself is not in compliance with the convention, according to a 2013 State Department report to Congress. “The United States assesses that Russia’s CWC declaration is incomplete with respect to chemical agent and stockpiles,” the report said.

Moreover, Iran sits on the governing body of the OPCW.

The US and Russia will press for a Security Council resolution enshrining the chemical weapons agreement under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which can authorize both the use of force and nonmilitary measures.

But Russia, which already has rejected three resolutions on Syria, would be sure to veto military action, and US officials said they did not contemplate seeking such an authorization.

The US and Russia are two of the five permanent Security Council members with a veto. The others are Britain, China, and France.
Still, US officials stressed that President Barack Obama retains the right to launch military strikes without UN approval to protect American national security interests.

Kerry made clear that the US believes the threat of force is necessary to back the diplomacy.

“I have no doubt that the combination of the threat of force and the willingness to pursue diplomacy helped to bring us to this moment,” Kerry said.

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