In a remarkable turn of events for President Obama and the United States, the five nations in the United Nations Security Council have agreed on a resolution that will require Syria to give up its chemical weapons or face the specter of Security Council retribution, which could include economic sanctions or even military action.
The deal by the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, is considered the most promising international diplomatic initiative of the Syrian civil war. Hammered out after days of backroom negotiations, the agreement requires the approval of the full 15-member Security Council and would result in the elimination of Syria’s chemical arms program.
There will be no automatic penalties if Syria fails to comply — likely because of the influence of the Russians, staunch Syrian allies—and Russia would have the power to veto any punitive action against Syria.
“This resolution makes clear there will be consequences for noncompliance,” Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said Thursday night, after posting on Twitter that the resolution established a “new norm” against the use of chemical weapons.
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in his own Twitter post that the resolution agreed to by the five permanent members of the Security Council would be “binding and enforceable.”
It was a startling, head-spinning turnabout for Obama, who just weeks ago was agonizing over whether to hit Syria with military strikes in retaliation for horrifying chemical weapons attacks on its own people- and facing intense opposition from even his most loyal supporters in the U.S. and abroad.
Most observers felt Obama had backed himself into a corner and seemingly had no pleasing resolution, a lose-lose situation. But things appeared to dramatically change overnight after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the U.S. would hold off on military action if Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to turn over his chemical arsenal.
While many media commentators characterized it as a bumble by Kerry, Obama revealed that he had been having talks along those lines for months with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There were a few obstacles along the way, such as Putin’s Op-ed in the New York Times that offered a direct challenge to Obama’s speech to the American people. In an essay published by the Times on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Putin— whose relationship with Obama has been tense and distrustful — attempted to position himself as the great negotiator, saving innocent lives in Syria by heading off an American military attack pushed by Obama.
In another promising development for Obama, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said progress had been made toward a resolution of the nuclear dispute between his country and the West. Zarif even suggested that the issue could be resolved in a year. Zarif made his statement after a U.N. meeting that he described as “very substantive, businesslike.” Zarif also met face-to-face with Kerry, which was one of the highest-level discussions in years between the U.S. and Iran.
A vote on the Syrian resolution by the 15-member Security Council could come as early as today, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The Syria resolution was hailed as a major breakthrough at the U.N., which has been engaged in ineffectual talks about Syria for years, as the country’s civil war has gone on to claim more than 100,000 lives.
According to the resolution, any violations by Syria would be reported to the Security Council by the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog organization that polices the international treaty banning chemical weapons, or the secretary general of the United Nations. The council would proceed to discuss what measures to impose on Syria.
While American officials have said they were surprised by how thorough and complete a report on its chemical weapons program was presented by the Syrian government today, far more formidable challenges lie ahead. By November, international monitors are scheduled to inspect all of Syria’s declared sites, and the equipment to produce and mix chemical weapons must be destroyed. Syria’s entire arsenal is to be eliminated by the middle of 2014.
The fears that have been raised by skeptics of the agreement are that Syria may try to draw out the process, just as Iraq did during the 1990s when the U. N. sought to inspect Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. If Syria’s compliance is only partial, they fear Russia will use its veto power in the Security Council to buy the Assad government more time.
But the more optimistic supporters of the measure expect cooperation from the Russians because, like the West, they also are eager to curtail chemical weapons use around the world.