Geneva: US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov opened talks on Thursday on disarming Syria’s chemical weapons programs, but differences emerged at the outset of the expected two-day negotiations.
Kerry reiterated the US position that military force might be needed against Syria if diplomacy over President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile fails.
“President (Barack) Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad’s capacity to deliver these weapons,” Kerry said, as Lavrov looked on.
But Lavrov made it clear that Russia wants the US to set aside its military threats for now.
“We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said. “I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow peaceful way of resolution of conflict in Syria.”
As the US Congress debated military strikes as a response to an 21 August chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus, Russia proposed that Syria instead agree to give up its chemical arms.
Kerry made clear that Washington, while exploring the offer, remains sceptical. And he pushed back on a reported offer from the Syrian government, as part of a move to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, to supply data on its chemical arsenal within 30 days, the standard practice.
“We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved, not only the existence of these weapons but they have been used,” Kerry said.
“Expectations are high. They are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia, to deliver on the promise of this moment,” Kerry said. “This is not a game and I said that to my friend Sergei when we talked about it initially. It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion, and finally there ought to be consequences if it doesn’t take place.”
In Washington, the US state department said that the documents Syria had sent to the United Nations on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty cannot be a substitute for disarmament or a stalling tactic.
State department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US option to use military force remains on the table while discussions proceed with Russia on how to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
The United Nations said it had received Syria’s application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, a multilateral pact that bar states that are party to it from developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, transferring or retaining such weapons.
States that are a party to the agreement also agree to destroy any stockpiles of chemical weapons that they may hold over time as well as the facilities that produced them.
Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview on Thursday that he would only finalize plans to abandon his chemical arsenal when the US stopped threatening to attack him.
Assad told Russian state television he was ready to take further steps—including handing over information on stockpiles—but added the process would not be completed until Washington stopped its threats.
“I want to make it clear to everybody: these mechanisms will not be fulfilled one-sidedly. This does not mean that Syria will sign the documents, meet the conditions and that is it. This is a bilateral process, it is aimed, first and foremost, at the United States ending the policy of threats targeted at Syria,” Assad said. Reuters
Tom Miles in Geneva, Paul Eckert and Arshad Mohammed in Wahshington, Thomas Grove, Gabriela Baczynska and Steve Gutterman in Moscow contributed to this story.