UN votes to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons
Updated: 2013-09-28 09:07
UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on Friday that demands the eradication of Syria's chemical weapons but does not threaten automatic punitive action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government if it does not comply.
The unanimous vote by the 15-member Security Council ended weeks of intense diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It was based on a deal between the two countries reached in Geneva earlier this month following an August 21 sarin nerve gas attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds.
The U.S.-Russia deal averted punitive U.S. military action against Assad's government, which Washington blamed for the August attack. The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, blamed anti-government rebels for the attack.
One provision of the resolution, described by council diplomats as significant, formally endorses a plan for a political transition in Syria agreed on at an international conference in Geneva in June 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama earlier called the draft U.N. resolution a "potentially huge victory for the international community" and described it as legally binding, verifiable and enforceable.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the resolution deflected attention from Obama's wavering on the Syrian conflict. "For the U.S., this resolution turns the attention away from its powerlessness," he said.
Assad agreed to destroy Syria's chemical weapons following global outrage over a sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs last month - the world's deadliest chemical attack in 25 years.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia continued to work "energetically" to help convene Syria peace talks.
"People continue to die and peaceful civilians suffer every day in Syria," he told the U.N. General Assembly. "Virtually the only possibility today to put an end to this turmoil is to move from a deadlock to the process of political settlement of the Syrian crisis."
As a precursor to the U.N. vote, the 41-member Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons approved a decision in The Hague on Friday laying out procedures to rapidly verify and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. The decision will see inspectors sent to Syria starting on Tuesday.
The five big U.N. powers ended weeks of diplomatic deadlock on Thursday by agreeing to the draft Security Council resolution. Western powers on the Security Council conceded they had backed away from many of their initial demands during negotiations. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed a victory, saying Moscow had stood its ground on opposing any threats of military force against Syria.
A major sticking point had been Russia's opposition to writing the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which covers its authority to enforce its decisions with measures such as sanctions or military force.
The compromise resolution makes the measure legally binding, but provides for no means of automatic enforcement if Syria fails to comply, as the United States, Britain and France originally wanted.
"No concessions have been made," Ryabkov told Voice of Russia radio. "The main thing is that the automatic use of Chapter 7 has been ruled out."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the draft resolution as "very significant" because, when adopted, it would be the first time during the conflict that the council had imposed binding obligations on Assad.
"Taking chemical weapons away from a regime that just used chemical weapons ... is a very intense form of accountability," Power said on Thursday. "I don't think anybody can discount the role that the threat of limited military action played in expediting and catalyzing this conversation."
Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of limited military strikes to punish Assad for the Damascus gas attack. The deal between Russia and the United States to rid Syria of its chemical weapons averted those strikes for now.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said he was pleased the draft resolution called for "accountability" for those responsible for the chemical attacks. He added, however, that he would have liked a reference to the International Criminal Court in The Hague - something diplomats said Russia opposed.
To impose further measures, like sanctions or military action, on the Syrian government for non-compliance with the chemical weapons deal, the Security Council would need to agree on a second resolution.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war, after the government tried to crush pro-democracy protests, and more than half of Syria's 20 million people need help.