A diplomatic breakthrough Saturday on securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile averted the threat of U.S. military action for the moment and could swing momentum toward ending a horrific civil war.
Marathon negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats at a Geneva hotel produced a sweeping agreement that will require one of the most ambitious arms-control efforts in history.
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The deal involves making an inventory and seizing all components of Syria's chemical weapons program and imposing penalties if President Bashar Assad's government fails to comply will the terms.
After days of intense day-and-night negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their teams, the two powers announced they had a framework for ridding the world of Syria's chemicals weapons.
Rebel infighting kills 5
Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels battled more moderate Syrian opposition fighters in a town along the Iraqi border on Saturday, killing at least five people in the latest outbreak of infighting among the forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Clashes between rebel groups, particularly pitting al-Qaeda-linked extremists against more moderate factions, have grown increasingly common in recent months, undermining the opposition's primary goal of overthrowing Assad.
The U.S. says Assad used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital, killing more than 1,400 civilians. That prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to ready American airstrikes on his order — until he decided last weekend to ask for authorization from the U.S. Congress. Then came the Russian proposal, and Obama asked Congress, already largely opposed to military intervention, to delay a vote.
Kerry and Lavrov said they agreed on the size of the chemical weapons inventory, and on a speedy timetable and measures for Assad to do away with the toxic agents.
But Syria, a Moscow ally, kept silent on the development, while Obama made clear that "if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."
The deal offers the potential for reviving international peace talks to end a civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and sent two million refugees fleeing for safety, and now threatens the stability of the entire Mideast.
Kerry and Lavrov, along with the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the chances for a follow-up peace conference in Geneva to the one held in June 2012 would depend largely on the weapons deal.
The U.S. and Russia are giving Syria just one week, until Sept. 21, to submit "a comprehensive listing, including names, types and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities."
International inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed. They must be given "immediate and unfettered" access to inspect all sites.
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All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
"Ensuring that a dictator's wanton use of chemical weapons never again comes to pass, we believe, is worth pursuing and achieving," Kerry said.
For the moment, the deal may not do much to change the fighting on the ground. But the impasse in the international community over how to react could ease somewhat with the U.S. and Russia also agreeing to immediately press for a UN Security Council resolution that enshrines the weapons deal.
Syria's opposition said the deal will not resolve the crisis, and alleged the Assad regime has already begun moving its chemical weapons into neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq to evade inspection.
General Selim Idris, the head of the Syrian Supreme Military Council, said the rebels regard the proposed deal as a blow to their uprising against Assad, but that they would co-operate to facilitate the work of any international inspectors on the ground.
But another council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said the opposite about co-operating.
"Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria."
France — the only country which said it was willing to join the U.S. in a strike against Damascus — welcomed the deal as an "important step forward" and said that talks to be held on Monday in Paris would focus on its implementation. Those talks will include the U.S., U.K. and France.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the agreement and pledged the UN's support in its implementation. Ban said he hopes the deal will help "pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people."
Warplanes strike near Damascus
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, chemical weapons only account for around two per cent of deaths in a civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed.
On Saturday, Syrian warplanes struck against rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus and government forces clashed with rebels on the frontlines, according to residents.
Baird raises doubt
Canada's foreign minister John Baird is calling Syria's offer to begin providing information on its chemical arsenal 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons "ridiculous and absurd."
Baird said Syrian President Bashar Assad could not be given extra time.
Baird said: "This is a man, who up until a week ago denied that they had any such weapons."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who joined Baird at a news conference Saturday in Istanbul, also expressed skepticism,
saying that Assad was playing for time while continuing to commit atrocities.
Baird is in Turkey holding business talks.
The residents and opposition activists asked about the deal said that it would not benefit normal Syrians.
"The regime has been killing people for more than two years with all types of weapons. Assad has used chemical weapons six or seven times. The killing will continue. No change will happen. That is it," said an opposition activist in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus who uses the name Tariq al-Dimashqi.
"The most important point is the act of killing, no matter what is the weapon," he said.
Syrian state media broadcast the Kerry and Lavrov news conference live, indicating that Damascus is satisfied with the deal.
The original drive for a political solution to the conflict in June 2012, dubbed the "Geneva Plan" and calling for a transitional government, went nowhere as Assad refused to cede power and the opposition insisted he could not be a part of any new political order.
The latest talks are not without their own difficulties, however. Experts say removing Syria's hundreds of tonnes of chemical weapons, scattered in secret installations, will pose huge technical problems in the middle of a civil war.