Geneva — The United States and Russia on Saturday reached agreement on a plan that would end Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons by November and would destroy all materials that could be used to make such weapons in the future by the middle of next year.
The milestone agreement, laid out in four pages released after two days of talks, calls for President Bashar Assad to detail the location and nature of his country’s weapons within a week.
The agreement is silent on what would happen if the Syrian government fails to comply, but the likelihood of a unilateral U.S. military strike appeared to be off the table.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that military force could still be employed but said that would come after action by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia would have a veto. His Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the option of military force was off the table for now, though it could be considered later by the Security Council.
The agreement did not detail how precisely the weapons would be gathered for destruction, but mentioned that the countries would consider consolidating them in “coastal areas,” a possible reference to the Russian naval base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Other materials would be either destroyed inside Syria or taken to other countries “depending upon site-specific conditions.”
The agreement called the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons “an urgent matter” that will be accomplished in “the shortest possible time period..”
There was no immediate reaction from the Syrian government. In interviews on Russian television, Assad has said in recent days that his country would provide an inventory of its chemical weapons stocks one month after he had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of such weapons.
The White House had no immediate comment, referring reporters to the State Department.
But President Obama in his weekly radio address released Saturday, noted that progress was being made in the talks and that if "current discussions produce a serious plan, I’m prepared to move forward with it."
He added that the U.S. was "not just going to take Russia and Assad’s word for it. We need to see concrete actions to demonstrate that Assad is serious about giving up his chemical weapons."
He said the plan had only emerged after the threat of U.S. military action and said the U.S. would maintain its military in the region to keep pressuring Assad.
"And if diplomacy fails, the United States and the international community must remain prepared to act," he said.
U.S. officials said they believe Syria holds about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons.
The agreement was reached after an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria’s eastern suburbs killed hundreds of people Aug. 21. A U.N. report into that incident is expected to be released next week, perhaps as early as Monday.