Published September 13, 2013
GENEVA – As they follow up an apparently contentious opening round of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are searching for agreement on the nuts and bolts that go into a Russian proposal for securing Syria's chemical weapons stocks.
Kerry and Lavrov, joined by chemical weapons experts from their countries, are expected to meet again Friday to go over the mechanics, details and timing of the plan for the weapons to be inventoried, quarantined and destroyed.
When the talks began Thursday, Kerry bluntly rejected a Syrian pledge to begin a "standard process" by turning over information rather than weapons — and nothing immediately. The American diplomat said that was not acceptable.
"The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough," Kerry declared as he stood beside Lavrov. "This is not a game."
The talks were the latest in a rapidly moving series of events following the Aug. 21 gas attack on suburbs in Damascus. The U.S. blames Syrian President Bashar Assad for the use of chemical weapons, although Assad denies his government was involved and instead points to rebels engaged in a 2-year-old civil war against his government.
Kerry was also expected to meet with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria.
President Barack Obama began building a case for support at home and abroad for a punitive military strike on Assad's forces, then changed course and asked Congress to give him explicit authority for a limited strike. With the campaign for lawmakers' building to a vote — one that he might well lose — Obama said Tuesday he would consider a Russian proposal calling for international control of Assad's chemical weapons and their eventual destruction.
Obama dispatched Kerry to Geneva to hammer out the details of the proposal even as he kept alive the possibility of U.S. military action.
"We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved," Kerry said on the opening day of talks. The turnover of weapons must be complete, verifiable and timely, he said, "and, finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."
Lavrov seemed to contradict Kerry's negative view of Assad's offer to provide details on his country's chemical arsenal beginning 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons. Syria's ambassador to the United Nations said that as of Thursday his country had become a full member of the treaty, which requires destruction of all chemical weapons.
The Russian said the initiative must proceed "in strict compliance with the rules that are established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons." That suggests Russia does not agree with the U.S. that this is an exceptional case and that Syria should face tougher standards than other countries.
"We proceed from the fact that the solution to this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic, and I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow a peaceful way of resolution to the conflict in Syria," Lavrov said.
The distrust in U.S.-Russia relations was on display even in an off-hand parting exchange at the news conference. Just before it ended, Kerry asked the Russian translator to repeat part of Lavrov's concluding remarks.
When it was clear that Kerry wasn't going to get an immediate retranslation, Lavrov apparently tried to assure him that he hadn't said anything controversial . "It was OK, John, don't worry," he said.
"You want me to take your word for it?" Kerry asked Lavrov. "It's a little early for that."
They were smiling at that point. Shortly after making their opening statements, the two went into a private dinner.
Assad, in an interview with Russia's Rossiya-24 TV, said his government would start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile a month after signing the convention. He also said the Russian proposal for securing the weapons could work only if the U.S. halted threats of military action.
Even as diplomacy took center stage, word surfaced that the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration could not "detail every single type of support that we are providing to the opposition or discuss timelines for delivery, but it's important to note that both the political and the military opposition are and will be receiving this assistance."
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the CIA has arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry such as rocket-propelled grenades through a third party, presumably one of the Gulf countries that have been arming the rebels. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.
Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press that his group expected to receive weapons in the near future.