Syrian official declares ‘victory,’ thanks Russia

(CNN) — A Syrian minister declared “victory” for his country on Sunday, thanking Russia for orchestrating a chemical weapons deal to avert U.S. military action, Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported.

“We welcome these agreements. On the one hand, they will help Syrians come out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they prevented the war against Syria by having removed a pretext for those who wanted to unleash it,” National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar was quoted as saying.

He called the deal an achievement of Russian diplomacy, and “a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends,” RIA Novosti reported.

The Syrian regime recently created the “national reconciliation” post to send a message that it wants to end the brutal violence that has led to more than 100,000 deaths, according to U.N. estimates.

The opposition ridiculed the post as mere window dressing. Haidar is not part of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and does not speak for the entire regime.

And in Israel, where he met Sunday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that “the threat of force remains” to make sure Syria follows through with the agreement.

“I want people to understand the key elements of what we agreed to in Geneva. It is a framework, not a final agreement,” he said. “It is a framework that must be put into effect by the United Nations now.”

Groundbreaking deal reached

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood side by side Saturday in Geneva, Switzerland, as they set out a series of steps the Syrian government must take to eliminate its chemical weapons. Under the plan, Damascus must submit a comprehensive list of its chemical arsenal within one week, and international inspectors must be on the ground no later than November.

Senior U.S. State Department officials said that according to the timeline, initial inspections of declared chemical weapons sites must be completed by November; all production and mixing and filling equipment must be destroyed by November; and all chemical weapons material must be eliminated by mid-2014.

The verification and destruction process will be carried out by personnel from both the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body that implements the international ban on chemical weapons use, according to the framework agreement.

Russia and the United States will now work to get a U.N. Security Council resolution that will keep the process under review and allow the Security Council to consider the use of force if Syria fails to comply.

China said Sunday it welcomed the deal.

“We believe this framework agreement has cooled the tense situation in Syria and has opened a new opportunity to use a peaceful means to resolve the chemical weapons issue,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after a meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

China, like Russia, is a Syrian ally. Like Russia, it has veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

Opposition group wants Syrian air power restricted

But a ban on chemical weapons isn’t enough, a Syrian opposition group said Sunday. It called for the Syrian regime to end the use of air power over populated areas.

“The Syrian National Coalition insists that the ban of use of chemical weapons, which led to the loss of lives of more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, must be extended to ban the use of the regime air power and ballistic weapons against population centers, in addition to the redeployment of heavy weapons away from population centers, and the prohibition of use of these weapons to bomb Syrian cities and villages,” the group said in a statement.

“The world must not allow the Assad regime to take advantage of the Russian initiative and their joining the treaty on the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons as an excuse to continue the daily slaughter of the Syrian people with impunity,” it added.

The group expressed skepticism about the chemical weapons deal.

“The Assad regime has a long track record of deceit when it comes to dealing with the treaties and empty promises in the regime attempt to buy more time,” the coalition statement said.

It asked rebel supporters to strengthen its military capabilities.

“The coalition calls upon the Arab brothers and Friends of Syria military to strengthen the arm capability of the military opposition to be able to neutralize the Assad air force and his tanks to force the regime to end its military campaign and accept a political solution that will lead to a democratic transition in Syria,” it said.

Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told reporters in Istanbul he has information that Syria has already started to move chemical materials and weapons out of the country, into Lebanon and Iraq.

Iraq denied the allegation, calling it “cheap propaganda.”

“We confirm that Iraq is against possessing such weapons and other weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world and under any excuse,” said a statement Sunday from the Iraqi prime minister’s office.

U.N. report due soon

The United States and its allies blame al-Assad’s forces for the chemical weapons attack outside Syria’s capital last month that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people. Al-Assad and other officials vehemently deny their forces were responsible.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday his team is preparing a report for the Security Council that he believes will be an “overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used.” The report is expected to be delivered Monday morning, according to three diplomatic sources.

The U.N. team’s mandate did not include determining who was responsible for the attack.

Syria confirmed it had chemical weapons in 2012. U.S. intelligence estimates it possesses about 1,000 tons of ordnance — mostly the nerve gases sarin and VX, which cause convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and death, but also mustard gas, which inflicted horrific casualties on the battlefields of World War I.

International observers believe Syria started developing chemical weapons in the 1970s as a deterrent to Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons. Iran, Syria’s main regional ally, welcomed the weekend agreement Sunday, but used the deal as an opportunity to criticize Israel for refusing to sign on to arms treaties that other Middle Eastern countries have.

“The fact that the Zionist regime in the Middle East is not signatory to any of disarmament conventions, including the chemical weapons convention, is worrisome,” Iran’s semi-official new agency Fars quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as saying. “We ask the Security Council and the world community to take serious action aimed at making that regime sign the chemical weapons convention.”

But in his appearance with Kerry, Netanyahu said Syria’s disarmament “would make our entire region a lot safer.”

“The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don’t have weapons of mass destruction, because as we’ve learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them,” said Netanyahu, whose government accuses Iran of working to develop a nuclear bomb.

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