Diplomats move quickly on Syria's chemical weapons. Will action on the ground follow?

The UN Security Council voted unanimously Friday night to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Inspectors are expected to arrive next week, but critics wonder if Syria will fully comply.

Adrees Latif/REUTERS
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (L) listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks after the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Friday in favor of a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal.

Diplomatically, at least, things are moving very rapidly toward ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons.

Friday evening, the full 15-member United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to control and then destroy such weapons, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said was “the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time.”

In the world of international diplomacy – especially regarding disarmament involving weapons of mass destruction – the steps leading to this latest development came with head-spinning speed.

Just a few weeks ago, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to acknowledge that it had chemical weapons, even though there was strong evidence that regime forces killed hundreds of civilians in a large-scale chemical attack Aug. 21 in a Damascus suburb aimed at rebels fighting in Syria’s long and costly civil war.

When President Obama threatened to punish the regime with a limited military attack, positioning US Navy destroyers within cruise missile range, Secretary of State John Kerry made what seemed to be an off-hand comment to the effect that Assad could avoid such an attack by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control.

Within hours, Russia – Syria’s chief ally – picked up on Kerry’s suggestion, and Syria quickly agreed to such disarmament. Within days, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had worked out an agreement which 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.

The UN Security Council vote Friday came just hours after the world's chemical weapons watchdog – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – adopted the US-Russian plan, which lays out benchmarks and timelines for cataloguing, quarantining, and ultimately destroying Syria's chemical weapons, their precursors and delivery systems.

The agreement allows the start of a mission to rid Syria's regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years to complete.

"We expect to have an advance team on the ground [in Syria] next week," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told reporters at the organization's headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands immediately after its 41-member executive council approved the plan.

Meeting with reporters in the White House briefing room as the Security Council was preparing to vote, President Obama called this latest development on Syria’s chemical weapons “a major diplomatic breakthrough.”

“This binding resolution will ensure that the Assad regime must keep its commitments, or face consequences,” he said. “We’ll have to be vigilant about following through, but this could be a significant victory for the international community, and demonstrate how strong diplomacy can allow us to secure our country and pursue a better world.”

Kerry emphasized that the Security Council resolution is legally binding and can be enforced.

“Syria cannot select or reject the inspectors,” Kerry said. “Syria must give those inspectors unfettered access to any and all sites and any and all people.”

“Should the regime fail to act, there will be consequences," he said.  

The resolution does anticipate the possibility of economic or military consequences should Syria refuse to comply or otherwise delay implementation. But that would require another Security Council vote, which Syria’s ally Russia could veto.

Critics see that as a serious weakness.

"It contains no meaningful or immediate enforcement mechanisms, let alone a threat of the use of force for the Assad regime's non-compliance,” Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said in a statement. “The whole question of enforcement has been deferred.”

"In the weeks and months ahead, Assad and his forces will continue their war on the Syrian people,” the Senators warned. “They will continue to use every weapon in their arsenal short of chemical weapons. They will continue to slaughter tens of thousands of Syrian men, women, and children." 

But those viewing the latest developments more optimistically see the possibility of broader benefits.

In the resolution approved Friday, the Security Council for the first time endorsed the roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012 and called for an international conference to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.

Secretary-General Ban said the target date for a new peace conference in Geneva is mid-November.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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