Syria chemical weapons deal: Path to disarmament or 'indefensible'? (+video)

The agreement brokered by the US and Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons is getting mixed reviews. It could reduce such weapons, but critics say it plays into the hands of Iran and Hezbollah.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina accompanied by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, speaks with reporters outside the White House Sept. 2, 2013, following a closed-door meeting with President Obama to discuss the situation with Syria.
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Like an exciting new TV series that may or may not be headed for a satisfying conclusion, the tentative agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons brokered by the United States and Russia is getting mixed reviews.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, plus the Syrian rebel commanders they support, hate the deal announced Saturday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Many US lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – tentatively welcome the agreement, if only because it relieves at least some of the pressure they were feeling to vote on a measure authorizing use of US military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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China, which (like Russia) likely would have blocked any measure in the UN Security Council that included the possible use of force against Mr. Assad, likes it, too.

So does Syria itself for at least two reasons: Their principal major power patron – Russia – wants them to, and the deal specifies no military or economic sanctions against Syria. It doesn’t even directly charge the regime with responsibility for the Aug. 21 chemical attack US intelligence sources say killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

Quoted Sunday on Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti, Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar called the deal "a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends.”

"We welcome these agreements,” he said. “On the one hand, they will help Syrians come out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they prevented the war against Syria by having removed a pretext for those who wanted to unleash it” – an obvious reference to President Obama’s “red line” justification for a US attack.

Mr. Obama’s current position boils down to keeping those US Navy guided missile destroyers armed and ready off the coast of Syria while encouraging any diplomatic effort that could result in ridding Syria of its estimate 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons of mass destruction.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos broadcast Sunday, Obama quoted one of his predecessors, who famously said “Trust, but verify” – the phrase former President Ronald Reagan used in approaching a nuclear arms reduction agreement with the former Soviet Union.

“We don’t have an actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process” of getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, Obama said. “But the distance that we’ve traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable.”

The agreement announced Saturday in Geneva, by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, lays out a path and a time frame for removing or destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons and equipment in a year’s time.

It requires Syria to provide a “comprehensive listing” of its chemical stocks and equipment, scrutiny by outside inspectors that is “immediate and unfettered,” and the complete “removal and destruction” of the Assad regime’s chemical stocks (estimated at 1,000 metric tons) in no more than 12 months.

Senator McCain and Senator Graham say the proposed deal “does nothing to resolve the real problem in Syria, which is the underlying conflict that has killed 110,000 people, driven millions from their homes, destabilized our friends and allies in the region, emboldened Iran and its terrorist proxies, and become a safe haven for thousands of Al-Qaeda affiliated extremists.”

“Is the message of this agreement that Assad is now our negotiating partner, and that he can go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East using every tool of warfare, so long as he does not use chemical weapons?” they ask in their joint statement. “That is morally and strategically indefensible.”

McCain and Graham have continually pushed for the US to arm moderate rebel groups in Syria, which so far has been limited to some light weapons and CIA training.

At a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, rebel commander Gen. Salim Idriss accused Syria and its ally Russia of “playing games” to bide time.

“What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order [to launch chemical weapons at the suburbs of Damascus]? Should we forget him?” Idriss said. “We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”

Echoing McCain and Graham’s warning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, (R) of Michigan, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, “Not only Russia is going to take advantage of this. So is Hezbollah and so is Iran.”

In response to such criticisms, Kerry said Sunday, "The threat of force is real and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal.”

Speaking in Jerusalem, where he briefed Israeli leaders on the issue, Kerry also said the agreement, if successful, "will have set a marker for the standard of behavior with respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea and any rogue state, or group that tries to reach for these kinds of weapons."

The next episode in the ongoing drama that is Syria: The United Nations Monday will release its report confirming the use of chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war, although it is not expected to point a finger directly at the Assad regime.

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