Still, the measure constituted the first legally binding action on Syria from the Security Council since the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in early 2011.
The conflict has descended into a brutal civil war, leaving more than 100,000 dead and threatening to engulf the region in sectarian conflict. Russia had previously blocked all attempts to punish or condemn Assad at the Security Council, which can order mandatory sanctions or military action.
“This is the first hopeful news on Syria for a long time. Tonight, the international community has delivered,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. He urged the council’s big powers to follow up by convening a long-awaited Syrian peace conference in Geneva by the middle of November.
The agreement binds Syria to turn over its chemical arsenal but provides no automatic punishment if Syria balks. Enforcement would require further negotiation, setting up the prospect of more tussles between the United States and Russia.
The White House claimed victory, citing the prospect of weapons inspectors entering Syria as soon as next week to begin the work of auditing and dismantling the country’s chemical stockpile. “This is something that we have long sought,” President Obama said at the White House on Friday. The deal worked out this week on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly will be “legally binding” and enforceable, Obama said, with “consequences for Syria’s failure to meet what has been set forth in this resolution.”
But the council action received a cool response from the Syrian opposition. “We don’t believe the removal of chemical weapons will end the suffering of the Syrian people. Therefore, we have emphasized the need to do more to end the war and particularly to stop the regime from using heavy weapons against population centers — particularly ballistic missiles and jets,” Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told reporters in New York.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry hailed the council action as a show of unity that promises the elimination of one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, one that had remained secret for decades. The United States and its allies say the arsenal was used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed about 1,400 Syrians, including more than 400 children, many as they slept.