(GENEVA) — Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Thursday for talks with Russia about Syria’s chemical weapons and was met by a statement from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he was not surrendering the arsenal because of any U.S. threats.
Assad told the Russian state-run news channel Rossiya-24 that his regime decided to hand over his massive cache of sarin, VX and mustard gas at Russia’s suggestion.
“Syria is handing over its chemical weapons under international supervision because of Russia. The U.S. threats did not influence the decision,” Assad told the TV station.
He said his government is preparing to send the U.N. documents to prepare to implement the chemical weapon transfer agreement.
President 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 will be 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.
The Americans seem cautiously optimistic. “It is doable, but difficult and complicated,” one official told reporters on the way to Geneva.
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 on Aug. 21 — were in jeopardy as Congress threatened to deny him the authorization to use force.
The Obama administration claimed a growing coalition of countries that agreed Assad should be punished for the alleged attack, but only France has declared that it would join in a military strike.
Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in the New York Times Wednesday praising Obama’s decision to give the diplomatic effort a chance, but also warning of the consequences of a U.S. strike on Syria, the region and the global balance.
U.S. officials insist they’re going into these talks with their eyes open, looking for a clear sign that the Russians are sincere in their desire to secure and destroy the weapons.
“We can test whether there is a credible and authentic way forward here, that the Russians mean what they say, as importantly, probably more importantly, that Assad means what he says,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
The official said one early sign they’ll be looking for is whether Assad is declaring his entire chemical weapons stockpile. Verifying that claim will be a critical — and challenging — next step.
The official outlined the goals for the 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 ongoing conflict 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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