UNITED NATIONS - The five permanent members of the deeply divided UN Security Council have agreed on a resolution that will require Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but there will be no automatic penalties if the Syrians fail to comply.
News of the breakthrough came as the global chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague was set to discuss plans to start inspections and disarmament of the civil-war-torn country's chemical arsenal by next Tuesday.
The United Nations agreement, hammered out after days of back-room negotiations, is a compromise among the United States, its allies and Russia about how to enforce the resolution, which would eliminate Syria's chemical arms programme.
Russia and the US jointly introduced the text to the 10 non-permanent council members on Thursday night, supported by other permanent members, Britain, France and China.
A vote on the resolution depends on how the full council responds to the draft, and on how soon an international group that oversees the global treaty on chemical weapons can adopt a plan for securing and destroying Syria's stockpile.
The executive board of the international group - the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - was expected to meet yesterday in The Hague in the Netherlands to set out the exact procedures.
The UN said yesterday that its experts in Syria - in a separate mission from the OPCW - are also investigating seven alleged chemical weapons attacks. They expect to finish their work on the ground next Monday. It was previously thought that the UN probe would look into only three locations in Syria.
In a statement issued from the Syrian capital of Damascus, where the team arrived earlier this week, the UN said the experts hoped to have a comprehensive report ready by late October.
The UN Security Council deal would amount to the most significant international diplomatic initiative of the Syrian civil war. It would also be a remarkable turn for US President Barack Obama, who had been pushing for a military strike on Syria before accepting a Russian proposal to have Syria give up its chemical arsenal.
Western diplomats said the resolution would be legally binding and would stipulate that if Syria failed to abide by the terms, the Security Council would take measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the strongest form of a council resolution.
Such measures could include economic sanctions or even military action. But before any action could be taken, the issue would have to go back for further deliberations by the council, on which Russia, like the other permanent members, holds a veto.
"This resolution makes clear there will be consequences for non-compliance," US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said on Thursday night. In an earlier Twitter message, she said the resolution established a "new norm" against the use of chemical weapons.
The Washington Post also reported yesterday that American and Russian officials now believe that most of Syria's nerve agent stockpile consists of "unweaponised" liquid precursors that could be neutralised relatively quickly, lowering the risk that the toxins could be hidden away by the regime or stolen by terrorists.
A confidential assessment by the two governments also concludes that Syria's entire arsenal could be destroyed in about nine months, assuming Syrian officials honour promises to surrender control of its chemical assets to international inspectors, according to two people briefed on the analysis.
NEW YORK TIMES, ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE