(GENEVA) — Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday rejected a call from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the U.S. to drop its threat of force before Syria gives up its chemical weapons.
“President Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad’s capacity to deliver these weapon,” Kerry told reporters at the start of a multi-day negotiation with the Russians over how such a disarmament might take place.
Kerry also rejected Assad’s call for a customary 30-day period before his country submits documentation about its chemical weapons stockpiles to the United Nations.
“There is nothing standard about this process at this moment,” Kerry said. “Words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough.”
Assad made his demands in an interview with the Russian state-run news channel Rossiya-24.
“Syria is handing over its chemical weapons under international supervision because of Russia. The U.S. threats did not influence the decision,” Assad said.
Obama has claimed that Assad was willing to give up his chemical weapons because of the U.S.-led threat of a punitive missile strike and has asked for congressional authorization to carry out a strike if Syria does not follow through on its promise to turn over the arsenal.
Kerry will hold two, maybe three, days of talks in Geneva with his Russian counterpart on exactly how they might rid Assad of his formidable stockpile.
U.S. officials insist this will be more than some high-level diplomatic meeting. Both sides are bringing a large team of experts and analysts who will hammer out exactly how the unspecified proposal would be carried out.
“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,” Kerry told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, kept his cards closer to the chest, telling reporters that “diplomacy likes silence.”
The meetings are described as a deep dive, with intelligence officials from both sides comparing notes about the size, scope and location of Assad’s chemical weapons depots. They’ll talk about how this work can be carried out in a war zone, what to do with precursor chemicals and delivery systems like rockets, and perhaps, most importantly, how to monitor and verify the work that is being done.
“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.
American officials seem cautiously optimistic.
“It is doable, but difficult and complicated,” one official said en route to Geneva.
President Obama told reporters in Washington he was “hopeful” a deal could be reached.
Kerry, however, struck a more sober tone in conversations with Syrian opposition leaders Thursday. According to a State Department official, Kerry told them he “begins (the Geneva talks with Russia) from a position of skepticism.”
Obama has put his plans to strike inside Syria on hold in order to give the diplomacy a chance to work. Those plans, punishment for Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians near Damascus Aug. 21, were in jeopardy as Congress threatened to deny him the authorization to use force.
Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in the New York Times praising Obama’s decision to give the diplomatic effort a chance, but warning of the consequences of a U.S. strike on Syria, the region and the global balance.
A senior State Department official outlined the goals for the Geneva meetings: “We will have an understanding with each other of what the scope of the problem is, what might be the best way to destroy these weapons, how we might monitor and verify what has occurred, and do it in a secure and safe manner.”
Experts agree this will be difficult. Dismantling smaller programs in less hostile areas took years. The United States estimates Assad has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons (much larger than Libya’s, where disarmament is ongoing) and the Syrian civil war poses a challenge to safely transporting them, carrying out the disarmament work and to the verification and monitoring teams.
Among other things Americans say they’ll discuss here in Geneva: How long until inspectors are allowed into Syria to begin work? And how long might all this take?
One senior State Department official acknowledged their decision to hold off on an attack isn’t popular with the Syrian opposition, which was hoping U.S. strikes would tip the balance of the conflict in their favor.
“They’re upset,” the official said. “They don’t trust this at all. And so part of this will be explaining to them what we’re actually able to achieve if we’re able to achieve anything. So we’re asking them not to prejudge.”
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