The UN Security Council voted unanimously Friday night to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, a landmark decision aimed at taking poison gas off the battlefield in an escalating conflict that has gone on for over 30 months.
The vote, which came after two weeks of intense negotiations, marked a major breakthrough in the paralysis that has gripped the council since the Syrian uprising began 2 ½ years ago. Russia and China previously vetoed three Western-backed resolutions pressuring President Bashar al-Assad's regime to end the violence.
"Today's historic resolution is the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the council immediately after the vote.
Ban stressed, however, that eliminating chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict "is not a license to kill with conventional weapons."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the "strong, enforceable, precedent-setting" resolution shows that diplomacy can be so powerful "that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war." Kerry said the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile will begin in November and be completed by the middle of next year.
Ban said the target date for a new peace conference in Geneva is mid-November.
The resolution also covers “most” of Damascus' concerns, Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said.
Ja'afari, reacting after the Security Council’s resolution, said the Syrian government was "fully committed" to attending a proposed November peace conference in Geneva aimed at ending Syria's civil war.
Chemical weapons plan legally binding
The resolution calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, but taking action would require the passing of another resolution by the council, a stipulation that gives Assad's ally Russia the means to stop any punishment from being imposed.
The vote came just hours after the world's chemical weapons watchdog — the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — adopted a U.S.-Russian plan that lays out benchmarks and a timeline for cataloguing, quarantining and ultimately destroying Syria's chemical weapons and delivery systems.
The Security Council resolution enshrines the plan approved by the OPCW, making it legally binding.
The agreement allows work to start on ridding Syria's regime of its estimated 900-tonne chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a process that would otherwise take much longer.
"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 immediately after its 41-member executive council approved the plan earlier Friday evening.
The UN resolution's adoption was assured when the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain — signed off on the text on Thursday.
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As a sign of the broad support for the resolution, the other 10 non-permanent of the Security Council signed on as co-sponsors Friday.
Russia and the United States had been at odds over how to enforce the agreement. Russia opposed any reference to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which would allow for military and nonmilitary action against Syria.
The final resolution states that the Security Council will impose measures under Chapter 7 if Syria fails to comply, but this would require the adoption of a second resolution.