U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps off his jet
after he arrives at Cointrin Airport in Geneva
Russia, US work on deal to disarm Syria of poison gas
Geneva, September 12, 2013
US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Geneva on Thursday to hear Russia's plans to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and avert US-led military strikes, an initiative that has transformed diplomacy over a two-and-a-half year old civil war.
U.S. officials said Kerry would insist any deal force Syria to take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its chemical arsenal, senior U.S. officials said ahead of Kerry's talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Among the first steps Washington wants, one U.S. official said, is for the government of Bashar al-Assad to quickly make a complete, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles as a prelude to allowing them to be inspected and neutralised.
The eleventh-hour Russian initiative interrupted a Western march to war, persuading President Barack Obama to put on hold a plan for military strikes to punish Assad for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians on Aug 21.
Syria, which denies it was behind that attack, has agreed to Moscow's proposal that it give up its chemical weapons stocks, averting what would have been the first direct Western intervention in a civil war that has killed 100,000 people.
In the past Syria had not confirmed that it held chemical weapons. It was not a party to treaties that banned their possession and required disclosure, although it was bound by the Geneva Conventions that prohibit their use in warfare.
The U.S. official, briefing the media on condition of anonymity ahead of Kerry's talks with Lavrov, said the aim was "to see if there's reality here, or not" in the Russian proposal. Kerry and a contingent of experts plan to hold at least two days of talks with the Russians on the plan.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, long cast as a villain by Western leaders for supplying Assad with arms and blocking Security Council efforts to dislodge him, took his case to the American public, penning an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he argued against military strikes.
Putin argued that intervention against Assad would further the aims of al Qaeda fighters among the Syrian leader's enemies.
There were "few champions of democracy" in Syria, he wrote, "but there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all types battling the government."
U.S. intervention would "increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism," Putin argued. "It could undermine multi-lateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilise the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law out of balance."
U.S. officials said they hoped Kerry and Lavrov could agree on a blueprint for Syrian disarmament whose main points would be adopted in a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The five permanent veto-wielding powers of the U.N. Security Council met in New York on Wednesday. Britain, France and the United States want the Security Council to include tough consequences if Assad is seen to renege.
An initial French draft called for delivering an ultimatum to Assad's government to give up its chemical weapons arsenal or face punitive measures.
The Russian initiative offers Obama a way out of a threat to use force which is deeply unpopular among Americans exhausted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and still embroiled in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan.
Obama had asked Congress for authorisation for strikes but faced a tough fight persuading sceptical lawmakers in both parties of the case. That vote is now on hold.
The sudden pull-back from the brink is a blow for the rebels, who have listened to Obama and other Western leaders declare in strong terms for more than two years that Assad must be removed from power, while declining to force him out.
Assad's forces have pressed on with offensives in Damascus suburbs, including those that were the targets of the Aug. 21 gas attack, in the days since the Russian initiative emerged.
Rebels say the offensive, including the first airstrikes in the capital since before the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attacks, are Assad's way of demonstrating that he is emboldened by the West's failure to act.
In a reminder of the mounting atrocities in Syria, a report by a U.N. commission of inquiry documented eight mass killings, attributing all but one to Assad's forces. It said Assad's forces almost certainly committed two massacres in May that killed up to 450 civilians.
Kerry is accompanied by a large retinue of experts in anticipation of detailed talks on how to turn the Russian offer into a concrete plan along the lines of disarmament accords between Washington and Moscow since the days of the Cold War.
"What we are seeking ... is the rapid removal of the repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime. And that means a rapid beginning to international control" over the stockpiles, said a second senior official travelling with Kerry.
The U.S. delegation will present the Russians with U.S. spy services' assessment of the scope of Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure, believed to be among the world's largest, said the first U.S. official.
Inspecting, securing and neutralising chemical weapons in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has killed over 100,000 people will be a stiff challenge, officials acknowledge.
"It is doable, but difficult and complicated," the first U.S. official said. – Reuters