UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on Friday that demands the eradication of Syria’s chemical weapons but does not threaten automatic punitive action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government if it does not comply.
The unanimous vote by the 15-member Security Council capped weeks of intense diplomacy between Russia and the United States. It was based on a deal between the two countries reached in Geneva earlier this month following an August 21 sarin nerve gas attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds.
The U.S.-Russia deal averted punitive U.S. military action against Assad’s government, which Washington blamed for the August attack. The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, blamed anti-government rebels for the attack.
One provision of the resolution, described by council diplomats as significant, formally endorses a plan for a political transition in Syria agreed on at an international conference in Geneva in June 2012.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after the vote that the big powers hoped to hold a peace conference on Syria in mid-November in Geneva.
He told the council the plan to eradicate Syria’s chemical weapons was “not a license to kill with conventional weapons.”
“As we mark this important step, we must never forget that the catalog of horrors in Syria continues with bombs and tanks, grenades and guns,” he said. “A red light for one form of weapons does not mean a green light for others.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the vote showed that “actions have consequences.”
“Our original objective was to degrade and deter Syria’s chemical weapons capability. And the option of military force that President Obama has kept on the table could have achieved that. But tonight’s resolution accomplishes even more - through peaceful means, it will for the first time seek to eliminate entirely a nation’s chemical weapons capability,” he said.
The resolution does not allow for automatic punitive action in the form of military strikes or sanctions if Syria does not comply. At Russia’s insistence, Friday’s resolution makes clear a second council decision would be needed for that.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Security Council would be prepared to take punitive steps in the event of confirmed violations of the resolution by either side in the conflict.
“The United Nations Security Council ... will stand ready to take action under Chapter 7 of the (U.N.) charter, quite clearly,” he said.
A major sticking point to the resolution had been Russia’s opposition to writing it under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which covers the council’s authority to enforce its decisions with measures such as sanctions or military force.
Russia has made clear, however, it would not support the use of force against Assad’s government, a major importer of Russian weapons.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, said Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, Qatar and the United States must abide by the resolution and be held accountable if they continued assisting the rebels, who Assad’s government has accused of using poison gas against the government army.
“You can’t bring terrorists from all over the world and send them into Syria in the name of jihad and then pretend that you are working for peace,” he said.
Ja’afari said the government was “fully committed to going to Geneva” for the planned peace talks, which the rebels have also suggested they would attend.
U.S. President Barack Obama earlier called the draft U.N. resolution a “potentially huge victory for the international community” and described it as legally binding, verifiable and enforceable.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the resolution deflected attention from Obama’s wavering on the Syrian conflict. “For the U.S., this resolution turns the attention away from its powerlessness,” he said.
Assad agreed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons following global outrage over a sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburbs last month - the world’s deadliest chemical attack in 25 years - and the U.S. military threat.
Lavrov said earlier Russia was working “energetically” to help convene Syria peace talks.
“People continue to die and peaceful civilians suffer every day in Syria,” he told the U.N. General Assembly. “Virtually the only possibility today to put an end to this turmoil is to move from a deadlock to the process of political settlement of the Syrian crisis.”
As a precursor to the U.N. vote, the 41-member Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons approved a decision in The Hague on Friday laying out procedures to rapidly verify and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The decision will see inspectors sent to Syria starting on Tuesday.
Until recently, the council had been paralyzed on how to deal with the Syrian civil war. Russia, backed by China, had vetoed three resolutions since October 2011 that would have condemned Assad’s government and threatened it with sanctions.
Western powers on the Security Council conceded they had backed away from many of their initial demands during negotiations. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed a victory, saying Moscow had stood its ground on opposing any threats of military force against Syria.
“No concessions have been made,” Ryabkov told Voice of Russia radio. “The main thing is that the automatic use of Chapter 7 has been ruled out.”
The United States, Britain and France originally wanted provisions for automatic enforcement if Syria fails to comply.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the council that “one resolution alone will not save Syria.”
“This resolution must not only be voted and passed, it must also be implemented, and France will see to it,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the draft resolution as “very significant” because, when adopted, it would be the first time during the conflict that the council had imposed binding obligations on Assad.
“Taking chemical weapons away from a regime that just used chemical weapons ... is a very intense form of accountability,” Power said on Thursday. “I don’t think anybody can discount the role that the threat of limited military action played in expediting and catalyzing this conversation.”
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said he was pleased the draft resolution called for “accountability” for those responsible for the chemical attacks. He added that he would have liked a reference to the International Criminal Court in The Hague - something diplomats said Russia opposed.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war, after the government tried to crush pro-democracy protests, and more than half of Syria’s 20 million people need help.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Louis Charbonneau, Paul Eckert and David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Peter Cooney