A minister for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has hailed a Russia-brokered chemical weapons disarmament plan as a "victory." The US, however, has reiterated that a military intervention remains on the table.
Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar told a Russian state news agency Sunday that the arms deal reached a day earlier in Geneva was an important step in avoiding foreign military intervention.
"We welcome these agreements," Haidar was quoted as saying to the RIA Novosti news agency. "On the one hand, they will help Syrians get out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they averted a war against Syria by removing the pretext for those who wanted to unleash one."
Haidar is not considered close to Assad. But his comments are the first by a member of the Syrian government on the deal reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to eliminate the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
Under the agreement, reached on the third day of talks between Kerry and Lavrov in Switzerland, the Assad regime has to declare its chemical weapons arsenal to the United Nations within a week. Weapons inspectors will visit sites no later than November, and the weapons are to be destroyed by the middle of 2014.
Military strike still on the table
Speaking from Jerusalem on Sunday where he was briefing Israeli leaders on the deal, Kerry reiterated that a military option remains on the table for the US.
"The threat of force is real, and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal," he said.
The agreement, if successful, "will have set a marker for the standard of behavior with respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea and any rogue state, (or) group that tries to reach for these kinds of weapons," Kerry added.
The US accuse the Assad regime of carrying out an August 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that they claim killed more than 1,400 people. Syria denies the allegations, instead blaming rebel fighters.
Washington had threatened military action in response to the incident, but Syria ally Russia stepped in, proposing a deal wherein the Assad regime would relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile.
The agreement reached on Saturday was welcomed by many western governments. British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his approval, but said that the international community now must work quickly to implement the agreement. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the deal "an important step forward."
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has called for international action but stopped short of advocating military intervention, said that the Geneva agreement could increase the chances of a political solution to the current crisis.
"If words are followed by actions, the chances of a political solution will have increased considerably," he said in a press release.
French President Francois Hollande, who has taken a hard line against Damascus, said the deal was an "important step" but "not an end point."
However, Syrian rebel fighters changed tack by saying the chemical weapons crisis was now distracting from the real issue – government forces were stepping up their military campaign now that the threat of western intervention no longer loomed.
The Syrian National Coalition said on its website that it wanted Assad to also be prevented from using his "air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas."
dr/slk (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)