Pundits, politicians weigh in on Syria chemical weapons deal

Reaction to the deal on Syria's chemical weapons brokered by the US and Russia has been largely positive. Yet to be heard from is one key figure: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Nour Fourat/REUTERS
Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons in the suburb of Raqqa, eastern Syria September 13, 2013.

As diplomats, politicians, and pundits study the US-Russia brokered deal for getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, some are weighing in with initial responses.

“The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments,” President Obama said in a statement Saturday. But he also insisted that the United States "remains prepared to act" should diplomatic efforts fail.

Obama said the United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to "ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today."

"In part because of the credible threat of US military force, we now have the opportunity to achieve our objectives through diplomacy," he added.

In another statement of US skepticism and resolve in the face of widespread domestic and foreign opposition to any US strike on the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "We haven't made any changes to our force posture to this point” – a reference to US Navy guided missile destroyers off-shore Syria in the Mediterranean Sea and other military assets in the region.

“The credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress, and it's important that the Assad regime lives up to its obligations under the framework agreement,” Mr. Little said.

The agreement announced Saturday in Geneva, Switzerland, by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey 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

In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he "pledges the support of the United Nations in its implementation" and "expresses his fervent hope that the agreement will, first, prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria and, second, help pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people."

At a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, Kerry addressed a comment he made in London on Monday, which many analysts saw as an off-hand remark amounting to a gaffe.

“[Assad] could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said in answer to a question about how Syria could avert a US military strike. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

That remark was neither a gaffe nor was it off-hand, Kerry said Saturday.

"I purposely made the statements that I made in London and I did indeed say it wasn't possible and he won't do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and wanted him to do it," he said. "The language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test and we did."

For now, both Kerry and Lavrov are vague about what any enforcement mechanisms might come into play if Syria refuses to go along with the deal worked out by the US and Russia, nor does the framework agreement announced Saturday directly blame the Assad regime for the Aug. 21 chemical attack that the US says killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

Given its longtime backing for Assad’s Syria, that would have been the two key points insisted upon by Russia.

Questioned by reporters, Kerry backed off the idea of force, saying he wouldn't specify what the remedy "might be for circumstances we don't even know yet,” CNN reported.

Lavrov said that "any violations of procedures ... would be looked at by the Security Council and, if they are approved, the Security Council would take the required measures, concrete measures." But, CNN notes, the Russian Foreign Minister added that there is "nothing said about the use of force or any automatic sanctions."

That undoubtedly will be a point of discussion and debate among US lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

“Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republic on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I’m still reviewing the details and believe Syria’s willingness to follow through is very much an open question, but I remain supportive of a strong diplomatic solution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.”

The joint statement by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham – two of the Senate’s most outspoken hawks on Syria – was much harsher in its reading of the agreement. 

“Without a U.N. Security Council Resolution … which threatens the use of force for non-compliance by the Assad regime, this framework agreement is meaningless,” they warned. “Assad will use the months and months afforded to him to delay and deceive the world using every trick in Saddam Hussein's playbook.”

“It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama Administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin,” McCain and Graham said.

Obama’s recent poll numbers – including how Americans view his skills in diplomatic and military affairs – have been decidedly lackluster.

But Daily Beast Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor Christopher Dickey writes that the Kerry-Lavrov deal on Syria – which he describes as “simply stunning” – “delivers, in writing at least, just about everything President Barack Obama demanded when he threatened to attack the Assad regime earlier this month.”

Still waiting to be heard from on the US-Russia agreement announced Saturday: Bashar al-Assad.

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