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U.S. campaigns for U.N. Syria resolution, departure of Assad

PARIS — The United States, France and Britain pushed Monday for a tough United Nations resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons, with the ultimate goal of forcing President Bashar Assad from power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined top French and British diplomats in insisting that the U.N. Security Council keep alive the threat of an armed response in case Syria backslides on the chemical-disarmament accord reached over the weekend.

“Assad has lost all legitimacy,” Kerry said at a press conference in Paris Monday. “We remain committed to the opposition and committed to the Geneva process which calls for a transition government. That’s our end strategic goal here.”

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the Security Council on a report by a U.N. inspection team that found “clear and convincing evidence” that the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack near Syria’s capital of Damascus, where the U.S. says Assad’s troops on Aug. 21 fired chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people.

The Syrian regime, backed by Russia, has denied responsibility, and the U.N. team’s mandate didn’t include drawing a conclusion about who was responsible. Still, the U.N. team’s reference to surface-to-surface rockets used in the attack may point to the government rather than its lesser-armed opposition.

The report, while not allocating responsibility, finds definitively that sarin was used. At least 29 of 34 blood samples and 14 of 15 urine samples tested positive for sarin exposure, the report said.

“The results are overwhelming and indisputable,” Ban told the Security Council, according to a statement from his office. “The facts speak for themselves.”

Given those results, Ban pressed the Council to “consider ways to ensure enforcement of, and compliance with” the U.S.- Russia plan announced two days ago to eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. “There should be consequences for non-compliance,” Ban said.

Russia brokered the chemicals agreement with the U.S. as a way of heading off U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime, the Kremlin’s chief ally in the Middle East.

The U.S.-Russian accord reached Sept. 14 in Geneva had something for both sides: it enshrined President Barack Obama’s goal of ridding Syria of chemical weapons while staving off a U.S.-led attack on the country, which has enjoyed Russian backing since the 1970s.

U.S. intelligence that Assad’s forces were behind the Aug. 21 attack drove Obama to the brink of military strikes. He pulled back on Aug. 31 to consult Congress and kept air strikes on hold in the wake of the chemicals-decommissioning agreement reached over the weekend in Geneva.

Kerry’s appearance in Paris alongside French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague forged a three-country voting bloc on the Security Council and laid bare the hurdles to distilling the chemicals accord into a U.N. resolution that won’t be vetoed by Russia.

France insists that “all options must remain on the table if declarations are not followed up with acts on the ground,” Fabius said. Hague said “the world must be prepared to hold them to account.” France would be at the U.S.’s side in a military operation, while Britain’s parliament voted against an armed British role.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out an initial Security Council resolution on the basis of Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which lays out provisions that have been used to justify armed interventions since the Korean War.

Any invocation of the use-of-force clause — mentioned in the Geneva agreement between the Kerry and Lavrov — would only come in a second U.N. resolution in the event that Syria falls foul of the first, the Russian diplomat said.

“Our American colleagues wanted very much to have this resolution adopted under Chapter 7, but the final document that we have adopted and which is a guide to action and is our mutual obligation, contains no such mention,” Lavrov told reporters after meeting Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

Reactions varied among friends and foes of the Assad regime. Syria’s government pledged to uphold the accord, which sets a Sept. 21 deadline for divulging the location, types and quantities of its chemical weapons and production sites.

Syria will conduct itself with “honesty and transparency,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said, according to the state-run Sana news agency. Rebels fighting for regime change criticized the accord as conceding too much to Assad, who inherited control of Syria in 2000 when his father died after 29 years in power.

While expressing support for the opposition, Kerry, Fabius and Hague didn’t commit to stepping up arms deliveries. The three appealed for all-party Syrian reconciliation talks with the ultimate aim of displacing Assad.

Assad was “weakened” by agreeing to give up his chemicals arsenal, Fabius said. “He must understand that there is no possible military victory for him. The regime has to come to the table.”

Kerry said “the best way to win the victory for the future of Syria is to have the Syrian people choose that future without Assad.” Diplomats will try at the U.N. General Assembly in late September to set a date for an intra-Syrian peace congress. Efforts to get Assad and the opposition talking have failed since world powers met in Geneva in June 2012.

With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer in Moscow, Sangwon Yoon at the United Nations and Sharon Wrobel in Tel Aviv.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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