Secretary of State John Kerry commended Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for starting to destroy his chemical weapons, and said the U.S. and Russia are pushing to convene a peace conference next month.
It’s “a credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly as they are supposed to,” Kerry said after meeting his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia. “It’s a good beginning, and we should welcome a new beginning.”
Following condemnation by the U.S. and its European allies of an Aug. 21 poison-gas attack near Damascus that President Barack Obama said killed more than 1,400 people, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokered a deal last month for Syria to account for and destroy its chemical weapons. Russia is a longtime backer of Assad, while the U.S. has supported rebel groups fighting to oust him since 2011.
Assad’s government “is cooperating blamelessly with international inspectors,” meeting its commitments to the chemical weapons deal, and it is ready for peace talks with the opposition, Lavrov told reporters at the joint news conference.
“We don’t need to do anything to convince Damascus to send its delegation” to a peace conference, Lavrov said, saying the regime was ready “months ago.” It’s the opposition that needs to be persuaded to attend without preconditions, he said. Lavrov and Kerry both said talks may start in mid-November.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry’s comments about Syrian cooperation don’t reflect a change in the U.S. position that, by attacking his own people, Assad has lost the right to govern.
“What Bashar al-Assad has done is horrific,” Harf told reporters in Washington. “He has no legitimacy. Nobody is giving him any praise.”
While the government’s actions in the early days of the chemical weapons removal effort are “clearly a step in the right direction,” Harf said that “does not confer political legitimacy on them to lead their country going forward.”
Lavrov said today that the U.S. and Russia have an understanding that the future peace conference must include “all parties” inside Syria and “important international players,” a possible reference to neighboring Iran, which supports Syria with money and weapons. U.S. officials have said they oppose Iran’s participation.
If Iran accepts a 2012 international agreement calling for peace talks aimed at establishing an interim Syrian government, Harf said today, the U.S. would view its participation in the Geneva conference “more favorably.”
Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a watchdog group based in The Hague, verified yesterday that Syria destroyed missile warheads and production equipment, according to an official from the joint OPCW-UN mission who asked not to be identified.
The development came a week after the UN Security Council approved an agreement demanding the elimination of Syria’s non-conventional arms following the August attack, which the U.S. and allies said was carried out by Assad’s forces. Assad and Russia say the rebels were responsible.
In an interview with Der Spiegel last week, Assad said the international community should not worry about the security of chemical weapons stores because they’re under government control and “the stored materials haven’t been activated.”
“It is not as bad as it is portrayed by the media and believed in the West. There is no need for any undue concern,” Assad said. He also said that a negotiated solution with “militants” won’t be possible.
The Security Council approved an on Sept. 27 to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, though the resolution didn’t attach consequences for failure to comply or assign blame for the attack.
Syria’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group. The fighting pits the mainly Muslim Sunni opposition against backers of Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.