Kerry waves stick as talks on Syria begin

13 September 2013

GENEVA/UNITED NATIONS: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry kept the threat of a military strike on the table as he opened talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons programs, saying “force might be necessary.”

As the U.S. and Russia started what is expected to be two days of talks in Geneva, Syria became a full member of the global anti-chemical weapons treaty, the country’s U.N. envoy said.

“Legally speaking Syria has become, starting today, a full member of the [chemical weapons] convention,” Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters in New York after submitting relevant documents to the U.N.

In Geneva, Kerry reiterated the U.S. position that military force might be needed against Syria if diplomacy over President Bashar 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 United States 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 U.S. Congress debated military strikes as a response to an Aug. 21 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 skeptical. “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 Sergey 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.”

The United Nations said Thursday it had received Syria’s application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, shortly after Assad promised to deliver it within days. Washington immediately warned Syria against stalling tactics to avoid military strikes.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. option to use military force remains on the table while discussions proceed with Russia.

“The Chemical Weapons Convention is an important thing ... but that that would not be a substitute for working with us and the Russians to verify and ultimately destroy their stockpile,” Harf said. She also brushed off Assad’s suggestion that he would only finalize plans to give up his chemical arms when Washington stopped threatening Damascus militarily.

“The threat of military action is still on the table,” Harf said.

Obama, whose attention has been consumed by Syria since he threatened military strikes to punish Assad’s government for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus suburbs two weeks ago, said he was now turning to domestic priorities while backing Kerry’s efforts.

This week’s eleventh-hour Russian initiative interrupted a Western march to war, persuading Obama to put strikes on hold.

Syria, which denies it was behind that attack, has agreed to Moscow’s proposal that it give up its chemical weapons stocks, averting what would have been the first direct Western intervention in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

“In the next couple of days, Syria will send a petition to the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Assad said in an interview on Russian TV.

Soon after the interview was broadcast, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters: “In the past few hours we have received a document from the government of Syria that is being translated, which is to be an accession document concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

The move would end Syria’s status as one of only seven countries outside the international convention that outlaws stockpiling chemical weapons. Other holdouts include regional neighbors Egypt and Israel, as well as North Korea.

The 189-member OPCW is the international organization responsible for implementing the treaty, which documents poison gas stockpiles and oversees their destruction.

Damascus is already bound by the separate Geneva accords that have banned the use of chemical weapons in warfare for nearly a century, but before this week it had never been required to disclose whether it had them. Western states believe it has vast stockpiles of poison gas, including the nerve agents suspected of being used in the Aug. 21 attacks.

A version of the Russian plan that leaked to the newspaper Kommersant described four stages: Syria would join the world body that enforces a chemical weapons ban, declare production and storage sites, invite inspectors, and then decide with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.A U.S. official, briefing the media on condition of anonymity ahead of Kerry’s talks with Lavrov, said the aim was “to see if there’s reality here, or not” in the Russian proposal.

U.S. officials said they hoped Kerry and Lavrov could agree on a blueprint with the main points to be adopted in a U.N. Security Council resolution. An initial French draft calls for an ultimatum to Assad’s government to give up its chemical arsenal or face punitive measures.

The sudden pullback from the brink is a blow for rebels who have listened to Obama and other Western leaders declare in strong terms for two years that Assad must be removed from power.

Gen. Salim Idriss, the head of the main rebel Free Syrian Army, told U.S. National Public Radio his forces had been poised to launch attacks coordinated with U.S. missile strikes. “We were and are still waiting for these strikes,” he said.

Kerry is accompanied by a large retinue of experts in anticipation of detailed talks on how to turn the Russian offer into a concrete plan along the lines of disarmament accords between Washington and Moscow since the days of the Cold War.

The U.S. delegation will present the Russians with U.S. spy services’ assessment of Syria’s chemical arms infrastructure, said the U.S. official traveling with Kerry.

Destroying chemical weapons in a war zone will be hard, the official added: “It is doable, but difficult and complicated.”

© Copyright The Daily Star 2013.


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