Monday 20 November 2017

Kerry talks tough as he casts doubt on Assad pledge to hand over chemical weapons

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, during a press conference before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, in Geneva, Switzerland
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, during a press conference before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, in Geneva, Switzerland

US Secretary of State John Kerry opened talks with Russia on Syria's chemical weapons today by bluntly rejecting a Syrian pledge to begin a "standard process" by turning over information rather than weapons.

That will not do, Mr Kerry declared at an opening news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, with stony-faced Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at his side. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."

"This is not a game," Mr Kerry said of the latest developments in a series that has rapidly gone from deadly chemical attacks to threats of retaliatory US air strikes to Syrian agreement with a Russian plan to turn over the weapons and, finally, to the crucial matter of working out the difficult details.

"We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved," Mr Kerry declared. And he kept alive the threat of US military action, saying the turnover of weapons must be complete, verifiable and timely - "and finally, there ought to consequences if it doesn't take place".

Adding to the drama, Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in from afar, raising eyebrows with an opinion piece in The New York Times that chided Americans for seeing themselves as "exceptional."

That was an apparent reference to a comment President Barack Obama made in his Syria speech on Tuesday night, explaining why he felt the US needed to take action. Congress has shown little inclination to authorise military action, and a vote on that has been put off.

Mr Putin also warned that a US strike against Syria because of chemical weapons use could unleash new terrorist attacks. And he continued to maintain that there is "every reason to believe" the weapons were used by rebels and not by Syrian President Bashar Assad's military.

Mr Obama, for his part, said simply that he was hoping for "a concrete result" from the talks.

The back-and-forth was a stark indication of the challenging work ahead as Mr Kerry, Mr Lavrov and their teams of chemical weapons experts plunge into talks aimed at finding agreement on how to dismantle the chemical weapons amid the confusion and danger of Syria's civil war.

Mr Lavrov seemed to contradict Mr Kerry's negative view of Assad's offer to provide details on his country's chemical arsenal 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons.

The Russian said the initiative must proceed "in strict compliance with the rules that are established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons". That suggests Russia does not agree with the US 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," Mr Lavrov said.

The distrust in US-Russia relations was on display even in an off-hand parting exchange at the news conference.

Just before it ended, Mr Kerry asked the Russian translator to repeat part of Mr Lavrov's concluding remarks.

When it was clear that Mr Kerry was not going to get an immediate re-translation, Mr Lavrov apparently tried to assure him that he had not said anything controversial. "It was OK, John, don't worry," he said.

"You want me to take your word for it?" Mr Kerry asked Mr Lavrov. "It's a little early for that."

They were smiling at that point.

Shortly after making their opening statements, the two men went into a private dinner. Talks will resume tomorrow.

The meetings in Geneva got under way as 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 US halted threats of military action.

But Mr Kerry, who earlier today met Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, made clear that the threat remains.

"President Obama has been clear that should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons," he said. "It won't get rid of them, but it could change his willingness to use them."

Even as diplomacy took centre stage, word surfaced that the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following Mr Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.

The US is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new UN Security Council resolution being negotiated that demands that Syria's chemical weapons be put under international control and dismantled and condemns the gas attack on August 21 that led to the current crisis. Russia has long opposed UN action on Syria, has vetoed three earlier resolutions and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.

As for arming the Syrian 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 US 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.

Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said his group expected to receive weapons in the near future.

"We are co-operating with the American administration and have been receiving some logistical and technical assistance and there are commitments by the administration to arm us but until now we have not received any weapons," he said.

The US officials said the aid has been arriving for more than a month.

The American team with Mr Kerry in Geneva includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War. Officials with Mr Kerry said the teams that eventually go into Syria would have to be an international mix.

The meetings are taking place in the same hotel where former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009 gave Mr Lavrov a symbolic "reset button" as a goodwill gesture and a reminder of the Obama administration's efforts to improve US-Russian relations.

Reuters

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