Day 2: U.S., Russia negotiate over Syrian chemical weapons

By Tom Cohen and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN

Russia and the United States will meet again later in September to discuss a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said from Switzerland Friday, where the two nations are holding a second day of talks on Syria’s chemical weapons.

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Kerry said they would meet “around the United Nations General Assembly” on September 28.

Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov spoke to reporters after meeting with the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Geneva.

They pledged to work toward setting a date for a second round of peace talks involving all parties in Syria, known as Geneva II, at the meeting in New York.

U.S. President Barack Obama is “deeply committed to a negotiated solution with regard to Syria and we know Russia is likewise,” Kerry said.

The secretary of state said that conversations with the Russian delegation on Syria’s chemical weapons had been “constructive” and would continue Friday.

The possibility of progress in the planned talks in New York will largely depend on whether negotiations in the next hours and days over Syria’s chemical weapons succeed, Kerry said.

Lavrov said the meeting with Brahimi had been “very useful.”

Russia had promoted a peaceful solution to the situation in Syria from the beginning and that it was unfortunate a communique agreed at a first round of peace talks in Geneva last year had been “basically abandoned,” he said.

Al-Assad: Stop the threats

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad demanded Thursday that the United States call off any potential strike on Syrian government forces before he gives up his large chemical weapons arsenal.

“This bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria,” al-Assad said.

But Kerry made it clear Thursday in comments on his first day of negotiations with Lavrov that the threat of a U.S. military strike remains on the table, if Syria does not hand over its stockpiles.

“This is not a game,” he said. Syria and its ally Russia must show that they are serious about the Syrian government having its chemical weapons destroyed, he said.

Any agreement reached must be “comprehensive,” “verifiable,” “credible” and “able to be implemented in a timely fashion,” Kerry said, adding that “there ought to be consequences if it doesn’t take place.”

The Obama administration has argued for carrying out limited military attacks to hinder al-Assad from using chemical weapons, after accusing his troops of killing 1,400 civilians in a gas attack.

Citing regulations

Syria has since said that it wants to join the chemical weapons convention that bans such arms, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

On Thursday, al-Assad alluded to its regulations, saying they give Syria a standard 30 days to provide information on its stockpiles to the international community.

Kerry appeared to reject that in his opening remarks for the talks with Lavrov.

Referring to al-Assad’s comment, Kerry said: “We believe there is nothing standard about this process.”

Lavrov called for following established rules and protocols in the process for Syria to join the chemical weapons convention and said that a solution “will make unnecessary” a military strike on Syria.

Lavrov and Kerry are joined by full diplomatic teams, including weapons experts. President Barack Obama’s administration considers the talks a litmus test for whether Russia is serious in pushing its ally Syria to give up hundreds of tons of chemical arms.

Negotiation beginnings

Kerry first publicly broached the idea of Syria turning over control of its chemical weapons, responding to a journalist’s question Monday that such a step would prevent a U.S. attack.

In a move that appeared to catch the Obama administration by surprise, Russia then formally proposed putting the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control, and al-Assad’s regime said it agreed.

The ongoing U.S.-Russia negotiations set the stage for a related U.N. Security Council resolution.

However, Russia’s steadfast opposition to any U.N. action on Syria raises questions about whether the talks in Geneva are merely a stall tactic to put off the military intervention Obama is threatening.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has so far blocked U.N. action sought by the United States and European allies against al-Assad’s regime over chemical weapons.

Kerry told Syrian opposition leaders Thursday that he entered the talks with Lavrov “from a position of skepticism,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of not being identified.

Political hurdles

Obama had tried to put together a NATO coalition to attack Syria. But he ran into roadblocks, like the vote by the parliament in Britain — a normally reliable ally of the United States — opting not to participate.

He then asked Congress to authorize a military response in Syria, but appeared in danger of losing that vote until the Russian proposal emerged Monday to provide a diplomatic opening.

Thursday’s initial session revealed some of the dynamic between Kerry and Lavrov.

In their opening statements, Lavrov spoke first with mostly technical comments and then Kerry followed with longer and more forceful remarks. When he finished, Lavrov asked to respond and said he hadn’t come “prepared with the extended political statement,” adding that “diplomacy likes silence.”

Kerry then asked the translator to repeat Lavrov’s final comment, but when that didn’t happen, Lavrov tried to assure Kerry there was no problem.

“You want me to take your word for it? It’s a little early for that,” Kerry said, smiling, as the two men shook hands for the cameras.

Presidential arguments

In a speech Tuesday night, Obama made moral and strategic arguments for taking action on Syria, challenging Congress and the American public to look at video footage of victims and saying that letting al-Assad get away with it would harm the security of the United States and its allies.

Obama insists he has the authority to attack Syria without congressional approval, but says he decided to seek the support of legislators for the sake of national unity.

Opponents of a U.S. military strike argue that it could lead to another lengthy entanglement in someone else’s civil war, and that Obama’s proposal for limited strikes would fail to achieve the objective of eliminating the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin injected himself into the American debate with an opinion piece first published late Wednesday on the New York Times website that argued against U.S. military intervention in Syria and implicitly criticized Obama.

The White House shrugged off Putin’s jabs at Obama as “irrelevant,” arguing that Russia’s diplomatic intervention over Syria’s chemical weapons meant that Putin now was “fully invested” in removing them from al-Assad’s control.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official told CNN that CIA-funded weapons have begun flowing to Syrian rebels, as pledged by the administration in June, although at least two opposition groups said they hadn’t received anything at all or anything directly from the United States.

Some in Washington see the arming of rebel forces as a counterweight to Russia’s supplying of al-Assad’s government with arms. But there are fears that weapons provided by the United States could end up in the hands of rebel groups affiliated with al Qaeda.

More than 100,000 people have died in the course of a civil war that’s dragged on for more than two years, according to the United Nations, and many more have fled Syria.

The United Nations’ refugee agency said Friday that a first group of 107 highly vulnerable Syrian refugees had arrived in the German city of Hanover from Lebanon, under a special humanitarian program announced by the German government earlier this year.

The program provides for up to 5,000 places for Syrian refugees, making it the biggest relocation program in existence for the most vulnerable victims of the Syria crisis, according to the UNHCR. The refugees have the right to stay in Germany for at least two years and have access to medical and social services and education.

CNN’s Jethro Mullen, Elise Labott, Chris Lawrence, Jamie Crawford, Samira Said, Ben Brumfield and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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