U.S., Russia begin talks on how to seize Syria’s chemical arsenal

Hannah Allam,Anita Kumar

The United States and Russia on Wednesday began swapping ideas on how to contain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in preparation for high-level talks slated to begin Thursday in Geneva, in the latest whirlwind of diplomacy to stave off U.S. missile strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, are scheduled to hold at least two days of meetings to discuss the logistics of a Moscow-generated proposal that would see Assad relinquishing his chemical arsenal to international authorities. Kerry and Lavrov each will be accompanied by a team of weapons experts to hash out the feasibility of such an undertaking in the midst of a vicious civil war that’s well into its third year.

The broader U.S. goal – a binding United Nations Security Council resolution spelling out the terms of such an agreement – is under discussion separately by diplomats in New York, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Those talks are said to be contentious already, with dueling French and Russian demands over language related to the threat of military action if the Assad regime fails to comply.

France’s draft proposal, according to the Reuters news agency, gives Syria 15 days to disclose its chemical stockpiles or face reprisals under a chapter of the U.N. charter that makes resolutions binding and enforceable by military action. Russia, which already has blocked three previous attempts to pass resolutions to pressure its ally Assad, has rejected such language.

At the State Department, Psaki said the Obama administration was entering the talks with “eyes wide open” and wasn’t “predicting victory.” She was grilled about the administration’s newfound faith in the Russians, which comes just days after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., warned that it was “naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position” about pressuring Assad at the Security Council.

“Let me first say that details matter. We’re not predetermining or pre-suggesting that we’re going to approve of whatever proposal we talk through over the next few days. It has to be credible, and it has to be verifiable,” Psaki said. “Our end goal here has been multifaceted. One of them has been securing and removing chemical weapons, and this is the best opportunity we’ve had over the past few years.”

The Obama administration’s abrupt shift from attack mode to the negotiating table has received mixed reviews among close observers of the Syrian conflict.

There’s no appetite for intervention among Americans, whose disapproval of a strike is registered in a slew of new opinion polls. That’s why many in Congress, which appeared to be leaning toward rejecting President Barack Obama’s request for authorization of a strike, breathed sighs of relief when a scheduled vote on the matter was tabled because of the Russian proposal.

“Military force is like a hammer, and you can’t thread the needle that President Obama wants to thread with a hammer," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday on the Senate floor that the United State would be watching the talks closely.

"Leaders in Damascus and Moscow should understand that Congress will be watching negotiations closely," he said. "If there is any indication that negotiations are not serious or will not effectively prevent further atrocities, the Senate will act quickly to give the president the authority to hold the Assad regime accountable."

Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who spearheaded an effort to have Obama seek approval from Congress, said he’d support a bipartisan congressional resolution advocating that the United Nations create a Syrian war crimes tribunal to hold the Assad regime accountable for crimes it may have committed.

“It is an appropriate nonlethal, diplomatic next step in the world’s response to Assad’s heinous actions,” said Rigell, who’s a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Russian proposal wasn’t so well received by Syrian opposition leaders and supporters of intervention in the administration and Congress.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the chief proponents of U.S. military action against Assad, complained Wednesday that Obama failed to mention helping the Syrian opposition in the speech he gave Tuesday night.

“I was very disappointed that the president did not mention the Free Syrian Army and our moral and material assistance for them, which is required. I think they do feel that they are being abandoned," McCain said on MSNBC. “I feel badly, very badly for my friends in the Free Syrian Army today.”

Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s envoy to the United States, said his group still wanted the Assad government held responsible for an alleged chemical attack Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs.

“We’re waiting to see the details of it, to see if Russia is really serious this time, and to see if there’s an element of accountability to it,” he said.

Other skeptics of the Russian proposal’s viability point to the extreme difficulties associated with inspecting and transporting huge stockpiles of sensitive materials in a war zone. A U.N. inspection team that recently visited Syria on a much smaller fact-finding mission faced numerous security hurdles, including being shot at. Then there’s the process of cataloging and disposing of the weapons, which experts say can be a complex and dangerous task in the best of circumstances.

“Whether or not CW disposal is difficult or easy is not the point,” Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a commentary Wednesday. “Should Russia’s proposal to put Syrian CW stockpiles under international control crystallize, it would offer the U.S. administration a ladder to climb down from what remains a largely reluctant and unpopular U.S. call for a military response in Syria.”

By Hannah Allam and Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau