GENEVA, Sept 14: Washington and Moscow have agreed on a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We have reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons possessed by the Assad regime. And we are committed to the rapid assumption of control by the international community of those weapons,” Mr Kerry told reporters at a joint press conference with Mr Lavrov, after wrapping up three days of negotiations in Geneva.

Mr Kerry said that the accord called for the “expeditious destruction and verification” of Syria’s chemical arsenal, and required Damascus to allow “immediate, unfettered access” to weapons sites.

Syria must submit an inventory of its chemical weapons within a week, and inspectors must be on the ground in Syria by November, with the goal of eliminating the arms by mid-2014, Mr Kerry said.

“One of the reasons we believe this is achievable is because the Assad regime has taken extraordinary means to keep control of these weapons,” he said, noting that the chemical weapons were mainly in regions under Damascus’ control.

“So that’s the silver lining,” he said.

“We should not have a problem achieving access to these sites and that will soon be put to the test,” he added.

Washington and Moscow also agreed that in the event of any non-compliance by Syria “we have committed to impose measures under Chapter 7 within the UN Security Council,” Mr Kerry said. He was referring to a UN article which sets out possible sanctions, including the threat of military force.

“What remedy is chosen is subject to the debate within the council, which is always true, but there’s a commitment to impose measures,” he added.

Mr Kerry said there was more at stake than the safety of the Syrian people.

“Providing this framework is fully implemented it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but also their neighbours... Because of the threat of proliferation this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world,” he said.

“The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its commitments... There can be no room for games. Or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” he added.But while Britain, France and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons welcomed the deal, the rebels fighting the Syrian regime greeted it with dismay, fearing it had scuppered any chance of Western intervention on their side.

“We cannot accept any part of this initiative,” General Selim Idriss, the head of the 'Free Syrian Army’, told reporters in Istanbul.

“Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid-2014, to continue being killed every day, and to accept (the deal) just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014.”

And Iran, which has been one of Mr Assad’s main allies, said the United States no longer had a pretext to attack Syria.

Amid an intensifying diplomatic drive over the Syrian conflict, Mr Kerry flies to Israel on Sunday to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the deal, as well as discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

He will then travel to Paris for a Monday meeting with French counterpart Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal.

Mr Kerry said the steps agreed on Saturday would be encapsulated in the UN Security Council’s resolution, which provides for enforcement through sanctions, including the possible use of military force.

But with Russia strongly opposed to the use of military threats against its long-term ally, and wielding a veto on the Security Council, Mr Kerry acknowledged it was “impossible to have a pre-agreement” on what would happen in the event of non-compliance.

Mr Lavrov signalled that Moscow would back some form of sanction, saying the Security Council would act under Chapter Seven if Syria failed to meet its demands.

Mr Kerry said that Syria’s bloody civil war could only be ended through negotiations, and he reiterated that he would meet Mr Lavrov again soon, this time in New York, to try to breathe life into planned peace talks between the regime and the opposition.

For Mr Lavrov, Saturday’s accord was an “excellent” agreement “whose significance is hard to overestimate”.

Meanwhile, fighting on the ground in Syria continued unabated with rebel and regime forces engaged in a fierce battle for control of the ancient Christian town of Maalula, near Damascus.

The United States and Russia now agree that Syria possesses around 1,000 metric tonnes of various chemical agents, including mustard and sarin gas, sulfur and VX.

US officials also said there were around 45 sites that inspectors would have to check and Mr Kerry said it would be feasible to do that, despite the fighting.—AFP

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