GENEVA » U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said today the prospects for resuming the Syrian peace process are riding on the outcome of U.S.-Russian talks aimed at securing Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal that lurched into a second day.
As American and Russian chemical weapons experts huddled in a Geneva hotel to haggle over technical details that will be critical to reach a deal, Kerry and Lavrov met a short distance away at the U.N.’s European headquarters with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to examine political developments and plot a new international conference in Geneva to support the creation of a Syrian transitional government.
Brahimi acknowledged the high stakes when he told the diplomatic pair that their chemical weapons negotiation "is extremely important in itself, and for itself, but it is also extremely important for us who are working with you on trying to bring together the Geneva conference successfully."
Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told the Geneva press corps after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva will require success first with the chemical weapons talks, which have been "constructive" so far.
"I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise. We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen. We discussed some of the homework that we both need to do," Kerry said.
Kerry said they agreed to meet around Sept. 28 on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly high-level meetings in New York. But, he said, the future of peace negotiations depends on the outcome of the weapons talks.
"And we are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world," he added.
Brahimi also met privately with Kerry at a Geneva hotel on Thursday to explore ways to resume international negotiations last held in Geneva in June 2012 aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
Lavrov said Russia has supported the peace process from the start of the Syrian conflict but that "it is very unfortunate that for a long period the Geneva communique was basically abandoned."
Lavrov said he, Kerry and Brahimi discussed ways of preparing for a second conference along with the document, which "means that the Syrian parties must reach mutual consent on the transitional governing organ, which would come with full executive authority. And the communique also says that all groups of Syrian society must be represented."
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."
Salem Al Meslet, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said he was disappointed in the outcome of the Kerry and Lavrov meeting.
"They are leaving the murderer and concentrating on the weapons he was using," he said of Assad. "It is like stabbing somebody with a knife then they take the knife away and he is free."
He spoke on the sidelines of a two-day opposition conference in Istanbul.
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.
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.
At a meeting in Kyrgyzstan of an international security grouping dominated by Russia and China, Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Syria’s efforts have demonstrated its good faith.
"I would like to voice hope that this will mark a serious step toward the settlement of the Syrian crisis," Putin said.
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.