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Agreement met with both hope and criticism

Politicians divided on U.S.-Russia plan

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GENEVA -- The United States and Russia agreed Saturday on a plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control, a rare diplomatic victory in a brutal civil war that appears to head off a punitive U.S. military strike on Syria in the near future.

In announcing the deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said the agreement would be backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.

Kerry said the first international inspection of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is set for November, with destruction to begin next year. But Lavrov added a more cautious note to what was an otherwise jubilant moment in Geneva, where the talks took place.

Lavrov stressed the documents released Saturday, outlining the transfer of Syria's large chemical weapons arsenal and its destruction, constitute only an "agreed proposal" that does not yet have the force of law. The plan drew sharp anger from Syria's U.S.-backed rebels and received decidedly mixed reviews from the U.S. Congress, across party lines.

"Providing this effort is fully implemented, it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people, but also to their neighbors, to the region," Kerry said.

The agreement, if successfully implemented, marks a modest victory for the Obama administration in its mostly arms-length engagement with Syria's 21/2-year-old conflict.

It was President Barack Obama's threat of U.S. military strikes after Syria's Aug. 21 alleged use of chemical weapons -- killing an estimated 1,400 people, hundreds of them children -- that began the process culminating Saturday in an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical stockpile.

Over the years, that arsenal has provided Syria with a strategic benefit against Israel, with whom it is formally at war, and most recently with Syrian rebel forces seeking to topple President Bashar Assad's government.

More than 100,000 people have died in the Syrian uprising since Obama in 2011 called for Assad to step down, arguing he had lost the moral legitimacy to lead the country.

While removing the threat of chemical weapons from the battlefield benefits Syria's rebels and reduces the chance of a regional war over their use, the deal does not change the basic trajectory of the civil war, in which Assad and his Russian-supplied weapons clearly hold the upper hand against a less cohesive rebel force.

News of the agreement drew immediate criticism from prominent Republicans in Congress, some of whom had supported the idea of airstrikes against Assad after last month's use of chemical weapons, putting them briefly on the same side as Obama.

"What concerns us most is that our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement -- they see it as an act of provocative weakness on America's part," Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a statement Saturday. "We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon."

But other lawmakers responded with a degree of hope, citing Obama's threat of military force as the catalyst for change.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was the first congressional leader to endorse Obama's call for military action, said the agreement "was only made possible by a clear and credible threat of the use of force by the United States."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) went further by suggesting the U.S. saved face despite being forced to negotiate with the Russian government.

"Russia and Syria sought two things in any agreement: a promise on our part not to use military force, and an end to international support for the Syrian opposition. This agreement includes neither item," Levin said in a statement. "Just as the credible threat of a strike against Syria's chemical capability made this framework agreement possible, we must maintain that credible threat to ensure that Assad fully complies with the agreement."

Support in Congress for Obama's proposed resolution authorizing military strikes on Syria was uncertain, and the plan allows congressional leaders to continue to postpone any vote on it.

Obama said Saturday he welcomed the progress that had been made in Geneva, calling it a "concrete step" toward getting Syria's chemical weapons under international control and, ultimately, destroyed.

"In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military force," he said in a statement issued by the White House, "we now have the opportunity to achieve our objectives through diplomacy."

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Navy ships positioned to carry out a strike if one is ordered have not been called off.

"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," Little said.

Senior administration officials said Friday the Obama administration would not press for UN authorization to use force against Syria if it reneges on any agreement to give up its chemical weapons.

Throughout the war, there have been fears the chemical weapons would fall under the control of radical Islamist groups or that Assad, if he became desperate enough, could sell them to the highest bidder.

Three days of round-the-clock negotiations by U.S. and Russian diplomats and weapons experts yielded a framework agreement.

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2013 A5

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