GENEVA — US Secretary of State John Kerry rejected Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suggestion Thursday that he begin submitting data on his chemical weapons arsenal one month after signing an international chemical weapons ban.
Speaking at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry noted that Assad said a 30-day lead time would be standard, but the secretary of state asserted that there is “nothing standard” about the process, because Assad has used his chemical weapons.
That won’t do, Kerry declared, a stone-faced Lavrov at his side. “The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough.”
“This is not a game,” Kerry said of the latest developments in a series that has rapidly gone from deadly chemical attacks to threats of retaliatory US air strikes to Syrian agreement with a Russian plan to turn over the weapons and, finally, to the crucial matter of working out the difficult details.
“We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved,” Kerry declared. And he kept alive the threat of US military action, saying the turnover of weapons must be complete, verifiable and timely — “and finally, there ought to consequences if it doesn’t take place.”
Lavrov seemed to contradict Kerry’s negative view of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s offer to provide details on his country’s chemical arsenal beginning 30 days after it signs an international convention banning such weapons.
The Russian foreign minister said the initiative must proceed “in strict compliance with the rules that are established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.” That suggests Russia does not agree with the US that this is an exceptional case and that Syria should face tougher standards than other countries.
“We proceed from the fact that the solution to this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic, and I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow a peaceful way of resolution to the conflict in Syria.” Lavrov said.
The press conference came several hours after an interview with Assad was aired by Russian state TV, in which the president said he was ready to begin the process of dismantling the country’s chemical weapon stockpile, given the US removed the threat of a strike.
“When we see that the United States really wants stability in our region, and will stop threatening and striving to attack, and will stop providing weapons to the terrorists, then we will consider that we can carry out these necessary processes to the end,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, Kerry and his team opened two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts, hoping to emerge with the outlines of a plan for the complex task of safely securing and destroying vast stockpiles of Syrian chemical weapons in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held out the effort as “a new opportunity to avoid military action” by the US against Syria.
“The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction,” Putin wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Times.
Kerry will be testing the seriousness of the Russian proposal, and looking for rapid agreement on principles for how to proceed with the Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles, according to officials with the secretary of state.
One official said the US hopes to know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as an opening position that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts.
The US is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new UN Security Council resolution being negotiated that would hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. Russia, however, has long opposed UN action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
In meetings planned for later Thursday and again Friday with Lavrov, Kerry will prod Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to inventory, quarantine and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, according to US officials.