GENEVA – U.S.-Russian talks over eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons began here Thursday on a wary and stilted note, as Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. military forces remained poised to attack Syria if a credible agreement is not rapidly reached and implemented.
Syrian President Bashar Assad added to the tension by saying that he is willing to cede control of his chemical arsenal to international control – but only if the United States stops threatening military action and arming rebel forces trying to unseat him.
Assad, in an interview with a Russian television station, said he is prepared to sign the international convention banning the weapons and would adhere to its standard procedure of handing over stockpile data a month later.
Kerry made clear that he had a much shorter time frame in mind and that Assad was not a party to the negotiations.
There is nothing standard’ about this process, he said as he headed into an initial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough, Kerry said.
A senior State Department official said the full delegations would reconvene this morning.
The emergency talks are aimed at laying down a blueprint for international seizure of the weapons that the United States has said Syrian forces used to gas to death more than 1,400 people last month near Damascus.
Russia, Syria’s main international backer and weapons supplier, offered Monday to negotiate the issue, after President Barack Obama sent U.S. warships to the Mediterranean and asked Congress to authorize a military strike against the Syrian government for its chemical weapons use.
The legislation, an uphill battle for Obama amid skepticism from lawmakers, is on hold pending the outcome of what are likely to be two days of talks in Geneva. The pause button also has been hit at the United Nations, where the United States, Britain and France have been readying a Security Council resolution designed to authorize the use of force if Syria does not adhere to any U.S.-Russia agreement on the weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an open letter to the American people and their political leaders published on the New York Times opinion pages, said any use of force was a violation of international law and would constitute an illegal act of aggression.
The United States, he said, was developing a habit of military intervention that had given the country an image of preferring brute force over democracy.
Noting Obama’s reference to American exceptionalism during a Tuesday night address on Syria, Putin wrote, It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.
There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too, he wrote.