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The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Friday backing a plan to turn Syria's chemical weapons stockpile over to international monitors. It was the first time the divided council has been able to unite and pass a resolution related to the Syrian conflict, which has torn the country apart for two and a half years.
U.S. officials are hailing the vote as a victory, in the wake of three joint vetoes by Russia and China in the past two years. But the resolution — which President Barack Obama and other Western diplomats have called "binding" and "enforceable" — lacks the teeth that the Obama administration has repeatedly called for.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in hastily scheduled, closed-door talks Thursday afternoon to resolve several last-minute disputes over the text. Shortly afterward, Lavrov said that Moscow and Washington had reached an "understanding" on the draft.
Speaking in the Security Council chambers shortly after the vote, Kerry said, "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, in fact, achieves even more."
During his speech at Friday's vote, Lavrov pledged Moscow's full support for the inspection and removal of Damascus' chemical weapons arsenal.
"Russia stands ready to participate in the upcoming action in Syria in all aspects," he said.
The United States and its allies France and the United Kingdom – the three permanent Western members of the Security Council – have repeatedly called for a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for military and nonmilitary actions to promote peace and security.
The draft resolution makes clear there is no trigger for any enforcement measures if Syria fails to dismantle its chemical weapons. Instead, it states that in the event of noncompliance or use of chemical weapons, the Security Council will "impose measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter," which would require a second resolution. But any resolution authorizing military intervention in Syria would be extremely unlikely to pass through the U.N. Security Council.
Lavrov, however, hinted in his statement that Russia could be open to a future resolution authorizing force if Syria fails to adhere to the agreement.
"Violations of its (Syria's) requirements as well as the use of chemical weapons by anyone will have to be carefully investigated by the Security Council of the United Nations, which will stand ready to take action under Chapter 7 of the charter, quite clearly," he said, adding that any such actions will have to be proven "100 percent."
Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, is a long-standing ally of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow has been supporting Damascus both militarily and politically since the conflict began as mass protests against the government. The demonstrations drew a swift and brutal crackdown by authorities, which escalated into a brutal and ongoing civil war.
China, the fifth permanent member of the council, has backed Russia diplomatically and joined Moscow in vetoing the last three resolutions aimed at solving the crisis over the past three years.
Diplomatic efforts have escalated in recent weeks after an Aug. 21 chemical attack. The U.S. said the attack killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 426 children, and Obama began an immediate march toward what, for days, seemed inevitable U.S.-led air strikes against military targets. He surprised the public, however, by saying he would seek congressional permission before intervening in the conflict. As momentum slowed, an apparently off-the-cuff remark by Kerry – suggesting air strikes could be could be avoided if Syria destroyed or turned over its chemical weapons – led to Russia brokering a deal with Syria, with Damascus agreeing to a one-year timetable to destroy or remove chemical weapons from the country.
On Sept. 16 a team of U.N. investigators confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin gas in the attack. The report, however, did not assign blame. In an interview this week with Venezuelan TV, Assad said his government had evidence that opposition forces had used chemical weapons in a March attack this year.
The council has remained deadlocked over the Syrian conflict since it began. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and humanitarian chief Valerie Amos have lamented the U.N.’s “failure” to resolve the crisis. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the violence.
After the vote Friday night, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded the U.N. that more is still needed to address the situation in Syria.
"As we mark this important step, we must never forget that the catalogue of horrors in Syria continues with bombs and tanks, grenades and guns," Ban said. "A red light for one form of weapons does not mean a green light for others. This is not a license to kill with conventional weapons."
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