GENEVA - The United States and Russia agreed on Saturday on a proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, averting the possibility of any immediate U.S. military action against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the agreement after nearly three days of talks in Geneva.
Kerry said that under the pact, Syria must submit a "comprehensive listing" of its chemical weapons stockpiles within one week.
He told a news conference with Lavrov that U.N. weapons inspectors must be on the ground in Syria no later than November. The goal, he said, was the complete destruction of Syria's chemical weapons by the middle of 2014.
The news was greeted with hope and skepticism by members of New Hampshire's delegation.
"Syria's use of chemical weapons is a serious threat to our national security, and the elimination of their weapons stockpile is in our best interests," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Shaheen said Russia and Syria "must take immediate and concrete steps to abide by the terms of this agreement."
She commended Kerry for his efforts and said it was "the credible threat of force that helped push Russia to the negotiating table."
But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said that while the world would be safer if Syria relinquished its chemical weapons, she is "deeply skeptical of Putin and Assad's motives and the U.N.'s ability to help facilitate such an outcome."
"The Syrian government can't be allowed to use the cloak of diplomacy to bide time, and the details of any agreement should include strict verification and enforcement provisions," Ayotte said.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., also said Putin's credibility is on the line. "So I'm sure that he's going to be putting a lot of pressure on Syria and on Assad to come forward," Shea-Porter said in an interview on MSNBC on Saturday.
Shea-Porter, who opposes military intervention in Syria, said she feels optimistic about the latest developments. "But the timelines are very important right now to make sure that Assad plans to do what he said he's going to do," she said.
Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., who opposes unilateral U.S. military strikes against Syria, called the news "a very encouraging development."
"I am hopeful that we are now en route to achieving our goal of containing the chemical weapons and securing a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria," she said.
The state's two U.S. senators also want leaders to go even further.
Ayotte said any agreement must also "seek to identify, transfer and destroy Assad's formidable biological weapons arsenal."
Kerry said that if Syria did not comply with the agreement, which must be finalized by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, it would face consequences under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, the part that covers sanctions and military action.
There was no agreement on what those measures would be. President Barack Obama reserves the right to use military force in Syria, Kerry said.
"There's no diminution of options," Kerry said.
Lavrov said of the agreement: "There (is) nothing said about the use of force and not about any automatic sanctions."
Obama had threatened the use of force in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that U.S. officials say killed about 1,400 people.
The United States has blamed Assad's government for the attack, while Russia and Assad say it was the work of rebel forces.
In Istanbul, the head of the opposition Syrian Supreme Military Council, General Selim Idris, said the rebels regarded the deal as a blow to their struggle to oust Assad. But they would cooperate to facilitate the work of any international inspectors on the ground, he told Reuters.
But another military council official, Qassim Saadeddine, said the opposite.
"Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria."
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, chemical weapons only account for around 2 percent of deaths in a civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed.
On Saturday, Syrian warplanes struck against rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus and government forces clashed with rebels on the frontlines, according to residents.
The residents and opposition activists asked about the deal said that it would not benefit normal Syrians.
"The regime has been killing people for more than two years with all types of weapons. Assad has used chemical weapons six or seven times. The killing will continue. No change will happen. That is it," said an opposition activist in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus who uses the name Tariq al-Dimashqi.
"The most important point is the act of killing, no matter what is the weapon," he said.
Syrian state media broadcast the Kerry and Lavrov news conference live, indicating that Damascus is satisfied with the deal.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier that a report by U.N. chemical weapons experts would confirm that poison gas was used in the Aug. 21 attack.
Ban also said that Assad "has committed many crimes against humanity." although he did not say whether it was Assad's forces or rebels who used the gas.
The original drive for a political solution to the conflict, dubbed the "Geneva Plan" and calling for a transitional government, went nowhere as Assad refused to cede power and the opposition insisted he could not be a part of any new political order.
The latest talks prompted Obama to put on hold his plans for U.S. air strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack. Obama is now also spared facing a vote in Congress on military action that he had appeared increasingly likely to lose at this stage.
Experts say removing Syria's hundreds of tons of chemical weapons, scattered in secret installations, will pose huge technical problems in the middle of a civil war.