The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, a landmark decision aimed at taking poison gas off the battlefield in the escalating 2 1/2-year conflict.
The vote on Friday night after two weeks of intense negotiations was a major breakthrough in the paralysis that has gripped the council since the Syrian uprising began. Russia and China previously vetoed three Western-backed resolutions pressuring President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to end the violence.
“Today’s historic resolution is the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the council after the vote.
Mr. Ban stressed, however, that eliminating chemical weapons from the Syrian conflict “is not a licence to kill with conventional weapons.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the “strong, enforceable, precedent-setting” resolution shows that diplomacy can be so powerful “that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war.” He said the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile will begin in November and be completed by the middle of next year.
For the first time, the council endorsed the road map for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June, 2012, and called for an international conference “as soon as possible” to implement it.
Mr. Ban said the target date for a new peace conference in Geneva is mid-November.
As a sign of the broad support for the resolution, all 15 council members signed on as co-sponsors.
The resolution calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, but those will depend on the council passing another resolution in the event of non-compliance. That will give al-Assad ally Russia the means to stop any punishment.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that the resolution does not automatically impose sanctions on Syria.
The vote came just hours after the world’s chemical weapons watchdog adopted a U.S.-Russian plan that lays out benchmarks and timelines to catalogue, quarantine and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, their precursors and delivery systems.
The Security Council resolution makes the plan approved by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons legally binding.
The agreement allows the start of a mission to rid Syria’s regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014, significantly accelerating a destruction timetable that often takes years.
“We expect to have an advance team on the ground [in Syria] next week,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told reporters at the organization’s headquarters in The Hague immediately after its 41-member executive council approved the plan.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity followed the Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and by President Barack Obama’s threat of U.S. strikes in retaliation.
After Mr. Kerry said Mr. Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to international control within a week, Russia quickly agreed. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on Sept. 13 to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control for later destruction, and Mr. Assad’s government accepted.
Tough negotiations, primarily between Russia and the United States, followed on how Syria’s stockpile would be destroyed.
The UN resolution’s adoption was assured when the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain — signed off on the text on Thursday.
Mr. Lavrov told the council that his country will participate in the destruction.
The final resolution bans Syria from possessing chemical weapons and condemns “in the strongest terms” the use of chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack, and any other use. It also would ban any country from obtaining chemical weapons or the technology or equipment to produce them from Syria.