US seeks complete surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons

Kerry makes clear military option remains after first day of talks with Russia’s Lavrov

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a news conference in Geneva yesterday following their talks on disarming Syria. Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a news conference in Geneva yesterday following their talks on disarming Syria. Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters


US secretary of state John Kerry said yesterday that Syria’s surrender of its chemical weapons stockpile must be “comprehensive”, “verifiable” and “timely”, making it clear that the US reserved its right to take military action should the process fail.

Mr Kerry arrived in Geneva yesterday with a team of US arms controllers to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to seek agreement around a political solution on the Syria crisis.

As the talks began, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told Russian television that his government would start handing over information on its chemical weapons a month after signing the international convention that bans the manufacture, storage and use of such weapons.

But as the first of two days of talks with Mr Lavrov came to a close, Mr Kerry rejected that 30-day timetable, saying “there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved, not only the existence of these weapons, but they have been used”.

“Expectations are high,” he added, speaking alongside Mr Lavrov in a joint press conference. “They are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia, to deliver on the promise of this moment.

“This is not a game and I said that to my friend Sergei when we talked about it initially. It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion, and finally there ought to be consequences if it doesn’t take place.”

Dr Assad warned that the disarmament would only work if the US dropped its threat of military action. Russia also wants the US to abandon the threat of using force against Syria ahead of any UN agreement on Dr Assad handing over the weapons – a condition the US and its allies are opposed to.

Mr Lavrov expressed confidence that a political agreement could be reached.

“We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said. “I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow peaceful way of resolution of conflict in Syria.”

Great caution
Earlier, British foreign secretary William Hague told the House of Commons that, “given their track record, any commitment made by the Syrian regime must be treated with great caution.

“This is a regime that has lied for years about possessing chemical weapons, that still denies it has used them and that has refused for four months to allow UN inspectors into Syria.”

Speaking at the start of a cabinet meeting in the White House, President Barack Obama said that he was “hopeful” that the US-Russian discussions in Geneva “can yield a concrete result”.

Ahead of Mr Kerry’s arrival in Geneva, US officials, quoted by the New York Times, said they planned a series of early tests to determine if the Russians and Syrians were serious about the disarmament.

The talks, which are attended by Russian weapons experts, will probably continue into tomorrow.

The US president halted his administration’s push for Congressional approval for military strikes against Syria to pursue a “diplomatic path” around a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under the control of international observers and ultimately to destroy them.

Diplomatic route
On the eve of the Geneva talks, Russian president Vladimir Putin used a New York Times opinion column to make a direct plea to America to follow the diplomatic route and avoid military action.

Mr Putin warned that a US military strike “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”.

In a stinging rebuke of recent US foreign policy, the Russian leader criticised the US for resorting to military interventions in internal conflicts of foreign countries, saying that it led to “millions around the world” seeing “America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force”.

He advised America to drop its sense of “exceptionalism” in foreign affairs, as expressed by Mr Obama in a televised address on Tuesday, saying it was “extremely dangerous” to encourage people like this.

Mr Obama declined to respond to Mr Putin’s comments.

Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said he was “insulted” by the article, while Democratic senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said: “I almost wanted to vomit.”