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The U.S. and Russia have agreed on a plan to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons by the middle of next year. Secretary of State John Kerry calls it an ambitious timetable but says he's confident the international community can keep the pressure on Syria to comply. President Obama welcomed the agreement but says the U.S. remains prepared to act should the diplomatic route fail.
Coming up, we'll hear how Syria acquired its chemical weapons in the first place. But first, this agreement caps a week of intensive diplomacy for John Kerry. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and reports from Geneva.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It began with something of an off-the-cuff challenge by Secretary Kerry, who had been making the case for a military strike on Syria. Kerry told reporters Monday that Damascus could avoid this only if Bashar al-Assad turned over all of his chemical weapons.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously.
KELEMEN: After days of negotiations with Russia on this idea, though, Kerry now says it is doable.
KERRY: And the language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test, and we did.
KELEMEN: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov took up that test and stayed longer than expected in Geneva to finalize the deal, which he says was done in record time.
SERGEY LAVROV: (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: These documents are based on consensus, compromise and professionalism, he says. If Syria doesn't comply, Lavrov says, the U.N. Security Council will discuss ways to respond. But there's nothing automatic about that, Lavrov adds, and Russia won't preapprove any action. He says he wasn't even in touch with Syria during the course of these negotiations.
The U.S. wants to see a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that warns of consequences. Kerry says in the case of Syria - that old Ronald Reagan adage, trust but verify - needs to be updated.
KERRY: And we have committed here to a standard that says verify and verify.
KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they've agreed with Russia on the size of Syria's stockpiles, which they say includes about 1,000 metric tons of chemical warfare agents and precursors. The U.S. believes the material is spread out over 45 sites. Russia says the rebels will have to help ensure the safety of inspectors. Kerry says the U.S. believes Syria is moving its stockpiles to areas firmly under its control so the onus is on the Syrian regime. And he says Damascus needs to declare its stockpiles to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons next week.
KERRY: And the inspectors must be on the ground no later than November. And the goal is to complete the destruction and removal - and/or, and/or removal - by halfway through next year, 2014.
KELEMEN: U.S. officials call that timetable daunting. Asked to describe the mood in the negotiating room, they said it was a hard-fought deal. The talks got off to a bit of a rough start when the Russian foreign minister seemed annoyed by Kerry's opening remarks, which Lavrov dismissed as an extended political statement. Lavrov lightened the mood only when Kerry said he missed a bit of the interpretation.
LAVROV: It was OK, John. Don't worry.
KERRY: You want me to take your word for it? It's a little early for that.
LAVROV: OK. OK. OK.
KELEMEN: By the end of many rounds of talks here, they seemed to have built up some trust on this issue. And when asked about the U.S. relationship with Russia, Kerry said it's a glass half full rather than half empty. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.