Russian diplomacy helps Damascus score symbolic ‘victory’
DAMASCUS - A US-Russian plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons is a "victory" that averts war, a Syrian minister said Sunday, as Washington warned that the threat of US force "remains real".
"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.
"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 to eradicate Syria's chemical weapons.
Kerry came out of the talks with a word of warning for Damascus.
"The threat of force remains, the threat is real," he said at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with Netanyahu.
Washington is seeking to bolster international support for the agreement inked in Geneva on Saturday, which demands action from Damascus within days.
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 of talks 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.
A high-ranking official in Syria said that the chemical deal could put Damascus back on the road to peace if it is coupled with an accord to cut off the supply of weapons to foreign-backed rebels.
"In parallel with the question of chemical arms, the whole world must work together to halt the influx of arms and mercenaries to Syria," he said.
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.
It was also welcomed by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who cautioned: "It is important, however, that it be put into practice."
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called the deal "a step closer to a political solution" to the civil war in Syria that has cost more than 110,00 lives since March 2011.
Ahead of Kerry's talks with the leader of Syria's neighbour Israel, Netanyahu said he hoped the accord would see the complete destruction of the Damascus regime's chemical weapons.
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 a flicker of hope the end of the devastating 30-month conflict may be in sight.
"We have more hope now, after this agreement. We might be able to see an end to terrorism and the troubles that we've had no part in creating," beauty salon owner Muna Ibo said.
Experts said the deal would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to implement.
Olivier Lepick of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris said he thought it would be impossible for Syrian stockpiles to be destroyed by mid-2014.
The deadline "seems to be a complete fantasy," he said. "Given the civil war, I don't think it can happen... In peacetime it would take years to dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal."
Kerry was to fly on to Paris for Monday talks with Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and their Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.
France has so far been Washington's closest ally as it has sought to build support to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons.
Also on Monday, the United Nations is due to release its investigation of an August 21 attack near Damascus.
Washington says Assad's forces unleashed sarin gas on the suburb, killing some 1,400 people.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has accused Assad of multiple crimes against humanity and said the UN inspectors' report would provide "overwhelming" confirmation chemical weapons were used.
President Barack Obama on Sunday denied having been outfoxed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in accepting the deal.
"I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, 'I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons," Obama told ABC television.
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, and also wielding a veto on the Council, Kerry acknowledged it would be up to debate in the Security Council over what sanctions to impose.