Syrian President Bashar Assad says he won’t give up Syria’s chemical arsenal unless the U.S. stops arming rebels.
Assad’s comments suggested another hurdle for the hastily arranged talks, which were already fraught with considerable risk, and threatened a separate diplomatic process at the United Nations. They underscored the limits of Moscow’s leverage over the embattled Syrian ruler, who faces a mortal threat from insurgents in a bitter civil war.
Neither Kerry nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov directly responded to Assad’s demands when they met with reporters. Both sought to project optimism about resolving the crisis that erupted after the U.S. said that more than 1,000 Syrians were killed in poison gas attacks outside Damascus last month.
“We do believe there is a way to get this done,” Kerry said. But he repeated President Obama’s warning that if diplomacy failed, “force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad’s capacity to deliver these weapons.”
“We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary” any U.S. airstrikes on Syria, Lavrov said.
Both diplomats brought teams of arms control experts, legal specialists and other aides to the talks, which are taking place in the Swiss city where the first ban on poison gas was signed nearly a century ago after the horrors of World War I.
In brief comments at the White House, Obama said he hoped the negotiations “can yield a concrete result.” He said Kerry would work hard “over the next several days to see what the possibilities are.”
The talks represent Moscow’s attempt to reclaim a dominant position on the world stage after years of decline, and have cast Russian President Vladimir Putin in the unlikely role of peacemaker. He vowed this week to force Assad’s government to let international monitors impound, safeguard and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
After weeks of insisting that America’s credibility was on the line in Syria, and months of tension and chilly relations with Moscow, the White House sought Thursday to shift the spotlight — and at least some of the responsibility — to the Russian leader.
“It is clear that President Putin has invested his credibility in transferring Assad’s chemical weapons to international control and ultimately destroying them,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “This is significant. Russia is Assad’s patron and protector, and the world will note whether Russia can follow through on the commitments that it’s made.”
Kerry and Lavrov have met nearly a dozen times this year, and Kerry has called Russia a crucial partner in trying to end the Syrian conflict and resolve the chemical weapons crisis. But U.S. officials worry that Putin is simply trying to avert U.S. airstrikes and buy time for his ally in Damascus.
Many diplomats and analysts say the Obama administration holds a weak hand in the talks. On Tuesday, Obama said he was withdrawing his request for Congress to authorize military action in Syria to give diplomacy time. But it was clear by then that the House, and perhaps the Senate, was unlikely to support the president’s plea for use of force.
Christopher Chivvis, a Pentagon official during the first Obama term, said he viewed airstrikes without congressional support as “not impossible, but increasingly unlikely.” He said the diplomatic efforts “could lead backward” if they unraveled in the weeks ahead and Obama refrained from retaliatory strikes.
“Then you’re in a worse position, because Assad still has his weapons and the message to the world is that you can use them without punishment,” said Chivvis, who is now with the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank.
In addition to the sit-down in Geneva, Syrian diplomats in New York gave U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a document declaring Syria’s willingness to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans the production, storage or use of poison gas. Nearly 200 countries have already signed it.
The treaty, which went into force in 1997, would bring Syria’s disarmament under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an independent international organization based in The Hague. It has no military enforcement powers and thus is dependent on each country’s cooperation.
Both Russia and the United States, the two countries with the largest stockpiles of chemical arms, are still working to destroy their toxic arsenals under the treaty’s provisions.
Assad said in an interview with the Rossiya-24 Russian news network that he was willing to sign the treaty. But he said that under its provisions, Syria would have a month to begin handing over details of its stockpiles to international monitors. That time frame is considerably longer than U.S. officials seek, and it’s unclear if it will prove acceptable.
Assad also said Syria would not participate unless other countries made important concessions.
“These mechanisms will not be fulfilled unilaterally,” he said. “When we see that the United States really wants stability in our region, will stop their threats and attack plans, and stop their arms supplies to terrorists, then we will consider that we can go ahead and complete the necessary processes so that they can be valid and acceptable for Syria. There are no one-sided mechanisms.”
Assad also demanded that Israel give up its nuclear weapons before he will comply. Israel does not acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons.
Igor Korotchenko, editor of the Moscow journal National Defense, said the Syrian leader was speaking to his own supporters, as well as the international community, in his attempts to bargain.
“Assad is trying to get away with as many bonuses as he can get,” Korotchenko said. “To expect Washington to stop aiding the rebels is unrealistic, and the Syrian leader must understand it full well. He needs to avert a U.S. strike and he is bidding for time trying to get some tactical advantages.”
The U.S., French, British and other governments also are exploring the possibility of a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. That could offer a legal mandate for the use of military force if Syria breaches its obligations under the treaty.
But Russia and China have made it clear they would veto such a resolution, citing their opposition to military action. Russia has suggested instead passing a nonbinding U.N. declaration called a “presidential statement.”
The options facing Obama “are just not that good,” said Michael Singh, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush who is now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.