Syria Update: Obama Praises US-Russia Syrian Weapons Plan; McCain, Canadian FM Do Not

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is welcoming an agreement to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons, but he says the U.S. remains prepared to act if diplomacy fails.
The agreement announced Saturday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (SEHR'-gay LAHV'-rahf) calls for Syria to eliminate all its chemical weapons by the middle of next year or face U.N. penalties.
Obama says the deal offers the chance to eliminate Syria's stockpile in a transparent, expeditious and verifiable manner.
Obama adds that while important progress has been made, more work remains to be done.
He says the international community expects Syria to live up to its public commitments.
Obama says the U.S. will continue working with Russia, Britain, France, the U.N. and others to ensure that the process is verifiable and that the Syrian government is held to account if it fails to comply with the agreement.

GENEVA (AP) -- Marathon negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have produced an agreement on securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.
The diplomatic breakthrough averts the threat of U.S. military action for the moment, but it will require one of the most ambitious arms-control efforts in history. It involves making an inventory and seizing all components of Syria's chemical weapons program, and imposing penalties if the Syrian government fails to comply will the terms.
The U.S. and Russia are giving Syria just one week, until Sept. 21, to submit "a comprehensive listing" of all its chemical weapons and where they are kept.
International inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed. They are to be given "immediate and unfettered" access to inspect all sites.
All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
If Syria fails to comply, it would face punitive action by the U.N. Security Council.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The agreement drawn up between the U.S. and Russia to strip Syria of its chemical weapons is not being received well by two Republican senators who have sharply criticized President Barack Obama's foreign policy.
John McCain and Lindsey Graham say the deal is meaningless and that President Bashar Assad will just use the time it gives him to delay and deceive the world.
The two senators say friends and enemies of the U.S. will view it as "an act of provocative weakness" by America.
Further, McCain and Graham argue that the agreement doesn't resolve the underlying civil war that has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people and turned millions of Syrians into refugees
The senators also say the agreement will embolden Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Canada's foreign minister John Baird is calling Syria's offer to begin providing information on its chemical arsenal 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons "ridiculous and absurd."
Baird said Syrian President Bashar Assad could not be given extra time. Baird said: "This is a man, who up until a week ago denied that they had any such weapons."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who joined Baird at a news conference Saturday in Istanbul, also expressed skepticism, saying that Assad was playing for time while continuing to commit atrocities.
The comments come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were in Geneva negotiating a Russian proposal to inventory, isolate and eventually destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks.
Kerry has rejected Syria's suggestion that it should turn over information, rather than weapons.
Davutoglu said Turkey welcomed the diplomatic initiative to remove Syria's chemical weapons, but it was still incumbent on the international community to bring to justice the Syrian officials responsible for crimes against humanity.
Western countries blame Assad for the use of chemical weapons, although he denies blames rebels engaged in a 2-year-old civil war against his government.

ISTANBUL (AP) -- The main Western-backed opposition group in Syria has elected an interim prime minister as it seeks to firm up its standing as a viable political alternative there.
The Syrian National Coalition voted during a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday to name Ahmad Saleh Touma, a dentist and longtime political activist, to lead the group. Touma's election comes as the United States and Russia have reached a deal to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons and are seeking a breakthrough on broad talks to end the long and deadly Syrian civil war.
Touma is the second SNC member to fill the post. Ghassan Hitto resigned in July after serving only a few months. In an indication of the divisions that have hampered the opposition, many members had opposed Hitto because of his perceived proximity to the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood.
Touma will be charged with organizing governance in parts of Syria controlled by disparate rebel factions. He later said in a speech that they will work on returning Syria to a state that respects human life and rights.
"Syria will be the republic of humans where there will be no place for killers and criminals," he said. He added that he hoped a new government in exile will be formed soon.
According to the Syrian National Coalition, Touma has a history of dissent from the Syrian government going back to 2001, when he joined groups calling for more freedoms and the release of political prisoners.
A biography released by the SNC says Touma was detained multiple times by the Syrian government for his work and once was sentenced to two-and-half years in prison. The Syrian National Coalition says he later joined the opposition using a fake name because he was living in Syria. After his last detention in 2012, left the country for Turkey.

BEIRUT (AP) -- Activists say heavy clashes between Syrian opposition fighters and Islamic extremist rebel factions near the Iraqi border have killed at least five people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says the ongoing battles Saturday in the town of Boukamal pit the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq against more moderate rebel brigades.
Infighting among rebel groups, particularly between al-Qaida-linked extremist factions and more moderate units, has escalated in recent months. The violence undermines the opposition's primary goal of overthrowing President Bashar Assad.
It also complicates efforts by the U.S. and its allies to provide greater support to the Syrian opposition.

BEIJING (AP) -- France's foreign minister is visiting Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart to discuss the situation in Syria.
Laurent Fabius was due to meet Wang Yi on Sunday in a continuing diplomatic drive to end the two-and-a-half-year civil war.
France firmly backs the Syrian rebels and has strategic and historic interests in the region. It urged military action after an alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 that it and the U.S. blamed on President Bashar Assad's government.
In contrast, China and Russia have consistently blocked resolutions at the U.N. Security Council aimed at sanctioning Assad's regime.
On Saturday, U.S. and Russian diplomats in Geneva agreed on a deal to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, averting the threat of military action for now.

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force says the West's hostility toward the Syrian government comes over Israel.
A state television report broadcast Saturday quoted Gen. Ghassem Soleimani as saying his country's support of Syria secures "Iran's real national interests." Iran considers Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah -- as well as Palestinian militant groups -- as part of a "resistance axis" against Israel.
Soleimani said the West knows that a "powerful position of resistance relies on Syria." Last week, Soleimani promised that Iran would support Syria "until the end."
Soleimani's Quds Force oversees the international operations of the Guard.
Iran unwaveringly has supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It considers Syrian civil war as a crisis instigated by Israel, the West and others.