Israel cautiously welcomes 'framework' to remove Syrian chemical weapons

Israeli intelligence minister warns agreement's deadline is not speedy enough and says Assad may try to hide weapons

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right
Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli leaders expressed cautious hope Sunday about a U.S.-Russia agreement that would require Syria to identify and eliminate its chemical weapons by mid-2014, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the region to discuss the deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel hoped the plan would lead to the "complete destruction" of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal and would push the international community to stop Iran, Syria's close ally, from developing nuclear weapons. Israel, believed to be in possession of its own nuclear arsenal, has long maintained that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and has identified the international community's response to the Syrian crisis as a "test case" for Iran. Iran denies the charge.

"This test of results also applies to the international community's diplomatic efforts to stop Iran's nuclear armament," Netanyahu said. "Words will not decide, only actions and results. In any instance, Israel must be ready to defend itself, by itself, against any threat, and this ability and readiness is more important today than ever."

U.S. and Russian officials reached an ambitious agreement over the weekend calling for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons program within one week. International inspectors are to be on the ground by November to assess Syrian weapons sites, and all components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014. The Syrian government has yet to comment publicly on the agreement.

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the deal, saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad "has no choice but to accept the commitment" and that the possibility of U.S. military action if the plan fails should "teach a lesson" to Iran.

Kerry made a brief stopover in Jerusalem Sunday to brief Netanyahu on the plan, as well as to discuss U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ahead of Kerry's arrival, some Israeli politicians voiced skepticism, saying Assad cannot be trusted.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the plan was more "substantive" than earlier proposals, but warned the agreement's deadline was not speedy enough and Assad could try to hide weapons.

"We know Assad. All kinds of things could happen," he said, adding that an agreement on chemical weapons should not absolve Assad of punishment for the acts he has committed against the Syrian people.

Avigdor Lieberman, chair of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, told Army Radio that Israel would compare its own intelligence assessments of Syria's weapons to the inventory Syria submits, which the plan requires him to do in a week.

"After we see the list of what Assad has handed over in a week, we can know if his intentions are serious of if it is just deception," Lieberman said.

The U.S.- Russian brokered agreement for removing chemical weapons from Syria was announced by top diplomats from both countries at a press conference Saturday morning in Geneva.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the progress of the removal would need stringent verification, but could represent the first steps to finding a political solution to Syria's two-year-old civil war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and created a refugee crisis.

The framework calls for the complete removal and eventual destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile -- likely by the middle of next year, Kerry said.

Syria must provide an account of its weapons within a week, according to the agreement.

"We have agreed on a more defined process which includes the unfettered access of inspectors," Kerry said.

The agreement does not include any language regarding the use of force if Syria fails to comply with the deal, Lavrov said.

If Syria fails to comply, the United Nations Security Council would debate punitive measures against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry added that the "the President of the United States always retains the right to defend the United States of America and our interests."

The United Nations said Saturday it had received all documents necessary for Syria to join the chemical weapons convention and that Syria would come under the treaty starting on Oct. 14.

"The Convention will enter into force for the Syrian Arab Republic on the 30th day following the date of deposit of this instrument of accession, namely on 14 October 2013," the U.N. press office said in a statement.

United Nations chemical weapons inspectors in Syria in August.
Mohamed Abdullah/AFP/Getty Images

What the US-Russia plan for ridding Syria of chemical weapons entails

The agreement aims to completely remove the weapons from Syria by the middle of 2014, along with the elements used to make them. The deal says sanctions could be put into place if the Syrian government fails to comply, but only after debate at the United Nations. It also does not place blame for the Aug. 21 attack. Read more

Reactions to agreement

In a statement from the White House, President Barack Obama said Saturday the deal represents progress but that "much more work remains to be done," leaving open the possibility of U.S. intervention.

"The United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today," the statement read.

"And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act."

But some U.S. lawmakers have already called the policy move a mistake.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina say friends and enemies of the U.S. will view the deal reached with Russia on destroying Syria's chemical weapons as "an act of provocative weakness" by the U.S.

"Assad will use the months and months afforded to him to delay and deceive the world using every trick in Saddam Hussein's playbook," McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.  

The Pentagon, for its part, said the credible threat of U.S. military force has been key in driving the unfolding diplomatic process to rid Syria of chemical weapons and possibly find a resolution to its civil war.

But Russia would not have agreed to a U.N. Security Council resolution that included a provision for the use of force, which formed a background for the discussion between the U.S. and Russia, a senior administration official told Al Jazeera.

"That's the essence of the negotiation and either way, it doesn't alter the credible threat of U.S. military action that remains in place," the official said.

China, one of Syria’s strongest allies, welcomed the agreement early on Sunday

"We believe that this framework agreement has ameliorated the present explosive and tense situation in Syria and has opened a new perspective on using peaceful methods to resolve the Syrian chemical weapons issue," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his visiting French counterpart, Laurent Fabius.

Fabius said the deal is an "important step forward." He is scheduled to meet with Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Paris Monday to discuss the approval and implementation of the agreement.

The head of the U.N., Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, also welcomed the deal in a statement Saturday.

"The Secretary-General expresses his fervent hope that the agreement will, first, prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria and, second, help pave the path for a political solution to stop the appalling suffering inflicted on the Syrian people," the statement read.

Gen. Salim Idris, commander of the opposition Syrian Military Council, decried the deal, saying rebels feel "betrayed by the international community" because the plan will not resolve Syria's crisis.

"We will work toward toppling Assad," Idris said in a news conference.

Removing the weapons

Russian and U.S. discussions over a plan to remove chemical weapons aim to pave the way for possibly hundreds of international scientists to destroy Assad's chemical arsenal.

But many chemical weapons experts say that cataloging, relocating and destroying Assad's considerable chemical arsenal in the middle of a war zone could be extremely arduous. Thousands of armed troops and a lengthy cease-fire may be required.

"This whole process depends on the Syrians making a fully complete disclosure about their arms stores," said Dan Kaszeta, who served as a chemical weapons specialist with the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense and now runs the consultancy Strongpoint Security in London. "And this is a regime that has not been forthcoming about its chemical arsenal."

On Saturday, the Syrian Military Council claimed that Assad's forces have been moving their chemical weapons arsenal to Lebanon and Iraq over the past few days, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, violence continues unabated across Syria, with the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group that documents the war's casualties, reporting more than 170 dead from Thursday's fighting and regime shelling around the country.

A U.N. report on Wednesday said that over the course of the two-and-a-half-year civil war, Syrian government forces have deliberately targeted hospitals, attacked field hospitals with fighter jets and prevented the sick and wounded from receiving medical care. The report also said that Syrian rebels have engaged in abuses, including murder, torture and hostage taking.

Al Jazeera correspondent Neave Barker contributed to this report. With wire services.

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