PARIS — The US and its closest allies laid out a two-pronged approach in Syria on Monday, calling for enforceable UN benchmarks for eradicating the country’s chemical weapons program and an international conference bolstering the moderate opposition.
The top diplomats from the United States, France and Britain stood side by side Monday to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to uphold his end of any deal on securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. France and the US insisted that a military response to the August 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds remains on the table, and were pressing for a UN resolution reflecting that.
The United Nations Security Council is set in coming days to take up the resolution laying out plans for the agreement brokered by the United States and Russia.
“If Assad fails to comply … we are all agreed, and that includes Russia, that there will be consequences,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said ahead of meetings in Paris with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two of the strongest proponents for military action against Assad.
Kerry noted that the Syrians have now agreed to hand over the same chemical weapons that “a week ago (they)…did not admit they even had.”
However, Kerry was cautious in his praise of the agreement, saying that “clearly, nothing can be accepted at face value and on words alone.”
“If the Assad regime believes that this is not enforceable, that we are not serious,” Kerry warned, “they will play games.”
Citing the recent difficulties that UN arms inspectors had in entering the chemical sites, Kerry said that even “the Russians agreed that there should be unfettered, unrestricted access to the sites.”
Meanwhile, invitations were going out Monday to top members of the Syrian National Coalition — the main umbrella opposition group — for an international conference in New York timed to coincide with next week’s UN General Assembly meeting, French officials said.
Bolstering the Western-backed SNC is just as crucial to Syria’s future as Assad’s agreement to give up chemical arms, said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“He must understand that there is no military victory, no possible military victory for him,” Fabius said. He acknowledged that broad popular support for the rebels has been hampered by fears that Islamic militants are now playing a major role in the 2 ½-year-old uprising.
In briefing the allies, Kerry was pressing for support for the ambitious agreement that averted threatened US military strikes. It calls for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons program within one week, with all components of the program out of the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
Those who blame Assad for the chemical attack and supported military strikes say it is up to Assad to uphold his end of any deal.
“It is extremely important that there are no evasions, that there is no cat and mouse game going on over these weapons,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The United Nations is set to take up a resolution that would lay out the terms of the agreement, detailing how Syria will secure and destroy its stockpile. The content of that was under discussion Monday.
Kerry acknowledged the chemical arms deal would have little immediate effect on the bloodshed in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 people, but he said full compliance was a key first step.
“This deprives Assad of a weapon,” Kerry said. “If you can translate this into that kind of negotiated settlement you can actually win peace.”
Kerry’s journey began a week ago in Paris. At that time he was trying to build support for military strikes on Assad.
After an extraordinary series of events and marathon negotiating sessions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry is now back in Paris building support for diplomatic initiatives to strip Assad of his chemical weapons, boost support for the opposition and push a political solution to end the conflict. The trip was wrapping up Monday with a private meeting with Kerry’s Turkish counterpart and lunch with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
The August 21 attack unfolded as a UN chemical weapons team was in Syria to investigate earlier reported attacks. After days of delays, the inspectors were allowed access to victims, doctors and others in the Damascus suburbs afflicted by the poison gas. The UN’s chief weapons inspector turned over his team’s report on Sunday, and the Security Council is due to take it up in a closed session Monday.
The Assad regime insists that the attack was carried out by rebels. The inspection team led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom was mandated to report on whether chemical weapons were used and which ones they were, but not on who was responsible.