The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously late Friday to require Syria to eliminate its arsenal of chemical weapons.
“Today's resolution will ensure that the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons program happens as soon as possible and with the utmost transparency and accountability,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon vowed after the vote.
The resolution falls short of the original U.S. goal of authorizing the automatic use of force if Damascus fails to comply, but marked a breakthrough on disarming Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal.
For nearly two years, the Security Council has struggled to reach any type of agreement about intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war. Russia and China repeatedly blocked resolutions denouncing Assad's brutal crackdown on rebels – at one point even preventing a press release condemning the use of chemical weapons that did not mention Assad.
Earlier this month, however, President Obama threatened to launch military strikes on Syria after a chemical attack in an area outside Damascus killed more than a 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. Obama said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces crossed a “red line” that demanded punishment.
Obama abandoned those plans in favor of a diplomatic solution amid weak international and congressional support.
Russia, a key ally of Assad’s, offered to broker an agreement to avert an American military strike and persuade Syria to hand over its chemical weapons arsenal.
Even though the resolution lacks a trigger for military enforcement, Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the U.N. vote as a major step in holding the Assad regime accountable and preventing another chemical weapons attack.
“The resolution makes clear that those responsible for this heinous act must be held accountable,” Kerry said, addressing the council.
If the resolution succeeds, he said the world “will have eliminated one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals on Earth, eliminating it from one of the most volatile places on Earth.”
He said the U.S. would be ready to enforce the resolution if Syria does not comply, a statement Kerry's Russian counterpart echoed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country, long an ally of the Syrian government “will stand ready to take action” if there is evidence that Assad is not complying.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power cast the agreement as a major breakthrough because it sets the goal of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, not simply degrading it.
The president's “original military objective was to degrade Syria's CW capability but this [U.N. resolution] commits the world to do more: eliminate Syria's CW entirely,” Power tweeted late Friday night.
But Republican Sens. John McCain, Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, S.C., said they were deeply disappointed that the resolution lacks an enforcement mechanism.
“This resolution is another triumph of hope over reality,”they said in a statement. “It contains no meaningful or immediate enforcement mechanism, let alone a threat of the use of force for the Assad regime's noncompliance.”
The pair predicted that the resolution would have little, if any impact on Syria's civil war and was a hollow attempt to constrain Damascus.
They said Assad's forces would continue to “use every weapon in their arsenal short of chemical weapons” on the Syrian people while continuing to receive military assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The vote on the U.N. Security Council resolution came after the 15-member Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, also agreed to fast-track Syria's membership in the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which bars countries from having supplies of sarin gas and other chemical weapons.
Earlier in the day, Obama said he was optimistic about the progress the U.N. was making on a resolution and took credit for pushing the parties to the point of sitting down and working out an agreement.
"I think, rightly, people have been concerned about whether Syria will follow through on the commitments that have been laid forth and I think there are legitimate concerns as to how technically we are going to be getting those chemical weapons out while there's still fighting going on the ground," Obama told reporters.
The U.N. negotiations had produced a draft resolution that "not only deters and prevents additional chemical use but actually goes beyond what could have been accomplished through any military action."
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier in the week, Obama challenged the Security Council to take “strong” action against Syria's use of chemical weapons that imposes “consequences” or risk becoming irrelevant.
“The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles,” he said. “Now, there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments. And there must be consequences if they fail to do so.”
“If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws,” Obama added.
The president on Monday will sit-down at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the biggest critics of the Russian-brokered deal on Syria's chemical weapons.
Israeli officials had privately expressed dismay over Obama's handling of the Syria crisis, concerned that any failure to follow through with threatened military action would embolden Iran and lead to an ineffective strategy in containing the development of its nuclear program.
The White House on Friday said Obama “looks forward to discussing with Prime Minister Netanyahu the progress on final status negotiations with the Palestinians, as well as developments in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere in the region.”