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.
Obama, speaking in a TV interview taped before Saturday's announcement of the chemical weapons deal, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is "protecting" Assad and doesn't share American "values" in Syria.
"He has a different attitude about the Assad regime," Obama told ABC's "This Week."
"But what I've also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad's in power, there is going be some sort of conflict there."
The U.S.-Russian agreement has won broad backing around the world, including from China, which is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. France also welcomed the deal, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius cautioned during a visit Sunday in Beijing that it was only the "first stage."
In Cairo, the Arab League also approved of the U.S.-Russian deal. Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the agreement helps move toward a political settlement to the crisis.
"All parties are capable and influential enough to do their part in the U.N. Security Council to ensure a comprehensive cease-fire in Syria ... and to move toward negotiations in Geneva to achieve a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis," Elaraby said in a statement.
Germany offered Sunday to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that Berlin is "prepared to make a technical or financial contribution to the destruction of chemical weapons from Syria." He didn't elaborate, but officials say Germany has helped destroy chemical weapons in Libya and elsewhere in the past.
The Syrian opposition warned that the Assad regime may just be playing for time and said the threat of force must remain on the table. It added that securing Syria's chemical weapons "must be for achieving justice and bringing the perpetrators of chemical weapons to the international court."1 comment on this story
The Syrian National Coalition also repeated its calls for military aid, to "force the regime to end its military campaign and accept a political solution that leads to the democratic transformation of Syria."
The U.S. and its allies have balked at sending heavy weapons to the rebels, fearful the arms could land in the hands of extremists who are among the most effective fighters in the opposition ranks. Washington announced plans months ago to deliver some weapons to the opposition, but rebels say they have yet to receive anything.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Josef Federaman in Jerusalem, Aya Batrawy in Cairo, Lynn Berry in Moscow and Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.