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 reached and implemented quickly.
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 fully comply with the international convention banning the weapons and would adhere to its “standard procedure” of handing over stockpile data a month later.
But 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.
After an hour-long session to outline the logistics and agenda for the talks, Kerry and Lavrov departed for a joint dinner with their deputies, while U.S. and Russian teams of technical experts stayed behind to iron out the details. A senior State Department official said the full delegations would reconvene Friday 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 Obama asked Congress to authorize a military strike against the Syrian government for its chemical weapons use.
The legislation 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 comply.