By Henry Chu, Los Angeles TimesLONDON – Secretary of State John F. Kerry has arrived in Geneva for hastily arranged talks with his Russian counterpart on a possible deal to impound Syria’s chemical weapons and avert a U.S. military strike on Damascus.
Kerry and a U.S. delegation are to hold talks Thursday and Friday with a team led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two sides will try to hash out details of a Moscow-backed proposal that the Syrian government, suspected of gassing rebel-held neighborhoods last month, give up its entire arsenal of chemical weapons to international inspectors for safekeeping.
The proposal has turned into a major diplomatic bid to forestall U.S.-led military reprisals against Damascus that seemed imminent just a few days ago.
But many Western nations, including the U.S., France and Britain, remain suspicious of the proposal, which they fear could be either a stalling tactic or such an impracticable idea as to be largely meaningless. Western governments have greeted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s apparent enthusiasm for the proposal with deep skepticism.
“Given their track record, any commitment made by the Syrian regime must be treated with great caution,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Thursday. “This is a regime that has lied for years about possessing chemical weapons, that still denies that it has used them and that refused for four months to allow U.N. inspectors into Syria.”
Nevertheless, Hague added, “we have to take this proposal seriously, and we have to test its sincerity. … If the Syrian regime verifiably gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles, this would obviously be a major step forward.”
The idea of Syria turning over its chemical arsenal, estimated at 1,000 tons of ordnance, to international inspectors was casually broached by Kerry in a visit to London early this week. Moscow quickly seized on possibility and has led the push to make it reality.
Experts say that locating all the weapons, neutralizing them and storing them securely would present a staggering challenge in a country racked by civil war. Keeping the arsenal out of the hands of either rogue loyalists of the Assad regime or Islamic militants among the fighters trying to topple him would pose a particular problem.
The talks between Kerry and Lavrov come after a direct appeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the American people urging them to set aside their sense of “exceptionalism” in world affairs and to work with international bodies on the Syria issue.
He blasted the U.S. as a country that resorts too easily to military intervention, a tendency that has caused “millions around the world” to see “America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”
“If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust,” Putin, a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, wrote in an opinion piece published in Thursday’s New York Times. “It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”