September 13, 2013

Broader Syria peace talks? Chemical weapons first

Kerry and his Russian counterpart haven't made substantial progress on the weapons issue, even as evidence mounts that Syria gassed its own people.

The Associated Press

GENEVA — The top diplomats from the United States and Russia raised hopes for reviving broader talks to end the Syrian civil war Friday, even as they showed scant progress in hurried efforts to tackle one horrific part — the chemical weapons fired on civilians. U.N. inspectors prepared to turn in their own poison gas report this weekend.

click image to enlarge

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, from left, UN Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appear during a news conference following their meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Kerry and Lavrov say the prospects for a resumption in the Syria peace process are riding on the outcome of their chemical weapons talks. (AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini)

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he expected the inspectors to release "an overwhelming report" that chemical weapons were indeed used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. The chief inspector, Ake Sellstrom, told The Associated Press the report was ready, but he wouldn't comment on its conclusions.

Leading the central talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made clear that any prospects for restarting broad peace negotiations depend on first settling the standoff over chemical weapons. But they didn't disclose any clear movement since their meetings began Thursday with Kerry's dismissal of Syrian President Bashar Assad's offer to begin by turning over information, not weapons, starting weeks from now after signing an international convention.

Meanwhile, Kerry and Lavrov met with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about the potential for a new Geneva peace conference. Kerry said he, Lavrov and Brahimi agreed to meet around Sept. 28 on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.

"We are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world," he said.

Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told reporters after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva will require success first with the chemical weapons talks, which he said had been "constructive" so far.

"I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise. We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen," Kerry said.

Brahimi acknowledged the high stakes Friday. He told Kerry and Lavrov that their chemical weapons negotiation "is extremely important in itself and for itself, but it is also extremely important for us who are working with you on trying to bring together the Geneva conference successfully."

Kerry was traveling to Paris on Monday to meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague about the Syrian war. He will meet separately with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

In Washington on Friday, President Barack Obama said any agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile "needs to be verifiable and enforceable."

After meeting Friday with the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, Obama said the U.S. and Kuwait are agreed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was "a criminal act."

"It is absolutely important for the international community to respond in not only deterring repeated use of chemical weapons but hopefully getting those chemical weapons outside of Syria," Obama said.

In Syria itself, U.S. officials said, Assad is continuing to move caches of chemical weapons and their delivery systems to different locations, even as he joins the chemical weapons convention and pledges to turn over his arsenal to international control at some point.

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