ABC, Associated Press
BEIRUT — A high-ranking Syrian official on Sunday welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, calling it a "victory" for Damascus.
The comments from Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar to a Russian state news agency were the first by a senior Syrian government official on the deal struck a day earlier in Geneva. Under the agreement, Syria will provide an inventory for its chemical weapons program within one week and hand over all of the components of its program by mid-2014.
"We welcome these agreements," Haidar was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti 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."
There has been no official statement from the Syrian government, and it was not clear whether Haidar's comments reflected the thinking of President Bashar Assad.
The deal, hashed out in marathon negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats, averts American missile strikes against the Assad regime, although the Obama administration has warned that the use of force remains on the table if Damascus does not comply.
"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," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday in Jerusalam, where he briefed Israeli leaders on the agreement.
He also said the agreement, if successful, "will have set a marker for the standard of behavior with respect to Iran and with respect North Korea and any rogue state, (or) group that tries to reach for these kind of weapons."
The U.S. accuses the Assad government of carrying out a poison gas attack against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people. Other estimates of the death toll are far lower. The Syrian government denies the allegations and blames the rebels.
The suspected chemical attack raised the prospect of U.S.-led punitive military action against Syria. The rebels hoped that such action would tip the balance of power on the ground in their favor. But as the strikes appeared imminent, Obama abruptly decided to ask Congress for authorization first, delaying any armed response.
Russia then floated the idea of Syria relinquishing its chemical arsenal to avert Western strikes, and the Assad regime quickly agreed. Moscow and Washington then struck a framework agreement Saturday to secure and destroy Syria's chemical stockpile.
For Syria's opposition, the deal proved to be disappointing in many ways. It deferred any U.S. action for the foreseeable future and did nothing to address the broader civil war or the use of conventional weapons, which have been responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths in the conflict.
With that in mind, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group called Sunday for a ban on the use of ballistic missiles and air power by Assad's forces in addition to the prohibition on chemical weapons.
"Chemical weapons attacks are a part of a bigger scheme of crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime, including using the Syrian air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas," the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement posted on its official website. "The Syrian Coalition insists that the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, which killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, be extended to include the prohibition of the use of air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas."
While a ban on air power and ballistic missiles would likely curb the bloodshed in some areas, it's unclear how such a measure would be imposed or enforced. The Syrian government is highly unlikely to unilaterally relinquish such weapons, while Western powers have shown little appetite for setting up a no-fly zone in the country, a costly and potentially dangerous endeavor.
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