(Updates with start of today’s talks in second paragraph. See EXTRA for more on the Syria conflict.)
By David Lerman, Henry Meyer and Terry Atlas
Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Syria said it would abide by an international treaty banning chemical weapons, even as President Bashar al-Assad set conditions that the U.S. lift its threat of military strikes and stop arming Syrian rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after effectively rejecting Assad’s conditions yesterday, resumed the diplomacy in talks that started at 9:30 a.m. in Geneva today with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy for Syria.
While all sides pledged to continue seeking a peaceful settlement, the first day of talks yielded no sign of a breakthrough. The major parties demanded concessions that would be difficult or impossible for the others to make, in addition to the practical challenges that would confront weapons inspectors amid Syria’s turmoil.
“It’s too early to tell whether or not these efforts will succeed, but the technical challenges of trying to do this in the context of a civil war are obviously immense,” Kerry told reporters yesterday before the talks began.
Assad said in a Russian television interview aired yesterday that a deal to give up his chemical weapons must be a “two-way street.”
“When we see that the U.S. really wants stability in our region and stops threatening and moving towards strikes, and also stops supplying weapons to terrorists, then we will see that we complete the necessary processes and they’ll be acceptable to Syria,” he said, also suggesting that Israel should give up its undeclared weapons of mass destruction.
His comments conflicted with conciliatory actions at the UN, where Syria’s ambassador said the Damascus government submitted documents to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and will begin meeting its disclosure and other requirements even before it takes effect in 30 days. Until this week, Syria hadn’t acknowledged it has chemical weapons.
Once in effect, the accord gives a signatory 30 days to disclose the “precise location” of any chemical weapons. Kerry said that’s too long in the case of the Syrian regime, which the U.S. blames for killing more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, with nerve gas on Aug. 21.
“We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved,” Kerry said in Geneva.
Syria needs to take “immediate actions” to disclose, surrender, and eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile under international monitoring and verification, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the UN, said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday.
Oil prices slipped today, ending a two-day rise. West Texas Intermediate crude for October delivery fell 0.4 percent to $108.18 a barrel at 8:30 a.m. London time.
In their talks yesterday, Kerry and Lavrov agreed that achieving a framework for the path forward is a shared goal, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the talks. That indicated they didn’t get into the contentious details.
As the meeting opened, Kerry told reporters that any agreement on Syria should include “consequences if it doesn’t take place” since the words of the regime, “in our judgment, are simply not enough.”
That may be a reference to devising a UN Security Council resolution with a provision invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter authorizing military action if peaceful efforts fail. France has advocated that approach. Russia has blocked previous council efforts aimed at punishing the Assad regime.
Speaking alongside Kerry before their talks, Lavrov said Russia seeks a deal that “will make unnecessary any strike” on Syria. Kerry said “expectations are high” for Russia “to deliver on the promise of the moment.”
The diplomatic initiative by Russia has led U.S. President Barack Obama to put off moves toward military strikes on Syria even as he and other U.S. officials have said they are uncertain whether the talks will succeed.
“President Obama has made clear that, should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad’s capacity” to use chemical weapons, Kerry said.
In a phone call yesterday to Syrian opposition leaders, Kerry said he is seeking tangible commitments that the Russians are interested in achieving a strong, credible and enforceable agreement to rapidly identify, verify, secure and destroy Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile, according to the State Department official. He also gave them assurances that a U.S. military strike remains on the table and that the U.S. will continue to stand by the rebels, the official said.
Kerry said he is entering the talks from a position of skepticism, the official said of the call with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba and the top rebel commander, General Salim Idris.
Russia’s four-stage proposal foresees Syria signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, then disclosing its chemical production and storage sites, followed by inviting in UN inspectors and then working out a mechanism for moving and destroying the stockpiles, said Alexei Pushkov, head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syria has made the right moves in the bargaining with the U.S. up to now. Speaking at a summit of central Asian leaders in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, today, Putin praised Syria for joining the chemical-weapons convention and said a military attack would be ``inadmissible.''