WASHINGTON — The United States raised the prospect today that Syria will miss the first test of its compliance with an agreement to give up its chemical weapons.
While Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Syria “must submit” a full disclosure of its chemical weapons by Sept. 21, as called for in the U.S.-Russia accord, State Department spokesman Marie Harf said Wednesday that the U.S. was prepared for some delay. She said the date — one week after the accord was reached in Geneva that averted U.S. military strikes — was more a “timeline” than “a hard and fast deadline.”
The comments may indicate that the U.S. anticipates Syrian President Bashar Assad is unwilling or unable to meet the first goal set out in the agreement and that the U.S. doesn’t want that date to become a make-or-break condition. Harf told reporters in Washington that what counts is seeing “forward momentum, understanding that it’s complicated and that these are targets on a calendar.”
The accord negotiated by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that their countries “expect Syria to submit, within a week, 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.”
Kerry was more emphatic at a Sept. 14 news conference with Lavrov in Geneva, where he said “we agreed that Syria must submit, within a week — not in 30 days, but in one week — a comprehensive listing.”
Members of Congress briefed by Kerry this week also said they got the impression that the Sept. 21 date was more than just an aspiration.
“We’re hopeful that these deadlines will be met,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said after Kerry discussed the accord with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And we’re going to hold the Syrians to them.”
Syria Wednesday gave Russia what it said was additional evidence supporting its case that rebels, not the regime, were responsible for a Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack near Damascus.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said during a visit to Damascus that Russia is “unhappy” about the findings of a U.N. investigation, according to Russian state broadcaster RT. While the U.N. didn’t say who was to blame for the attack, Western nations and human-rights groups said the evidence it provided made clear the Assad regime was behind it.
“We think that report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient, and in any case we would need to learn and know more on what happened beyond and above that incident of Aug. 21,” Ryabkov told RT.
Lavrov called Tuesday for a further inquiry, saying his country has “serious grounds” for thinking that the attack last month was a rebel “provocation,” as Assad claims.
The comments underscored the conflicting interests as the U.N. Security Council attempts to negotiate a resolution mandating that Syria give up its chemical weapons under the U.S.-Russia accord.
The U.S., Russia and the other veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council — France, Britain, and China — are attempting to draft a resolution compelling Syria’s implementation of the accord reached by Kerry and Lavrov. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that he hopes the council will vote on a resolution early next week.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the information gathered at the scene of the attack by the U.N. inspectors, who confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin, implicates the Assad regime.
“When you look at the details, the evidence they present, it is inconceivable that anybody other than the regime” used the sarin, Obama said in an interview Tuesday with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo.
The U.S. considers Russia’s actions more important than its words, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
“What matters is what the Russians do to ensure that Syria upholds its commitments, and that Russia upholds its commitment to see this agreement through, which calls for an aggressive timetable in accounting for and securing Assad’s chemical weapons inventory,” Carney said.
In addition to confirming the use of sarin, the U.N. inspectors presented technical details of the attack, including the types of rockets used, their markings, and their trajectories. That evidence clearly pinned the blame on Assad’s regime, according to Human Rights Watch.
“When mapping these trajectories, the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade, situated only a few kilometers north of downtown Damascus and within firing range of the neighborhoods attacked by chemical weapons,” the New York- based group said in an analysis posted Tuesday on its website.
Kerry, speaking to reporters before briefing the Senate committee Tuesday, said that the details make clear “it really was the Assad regime that committed this attack,” which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people in what may be the worst atrocity of the 2 1/2 year Syrian civil war.
At the State Department Wednesday, Harf said that the U.S. is confident of its conclusions and hasn’t seen evidence supporting the contention of Russia and the Syrian regime.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Moscow Tuesday that he has “no doubts” the Assad regime was behind the Aug. 21 assault. He called Syria’s willingness to give up chemical weapons a “major change,” made possible only because force was threatened.
Obama had requested the authorization of force, which faced substantial opposition in Congress, only to put it aside when the Russians proposed the plan to put Assad’s chemical weapons under international control.