GENEVA/BEIRUT — US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Geneva today to hear Russia’s plans to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and avert US-led military strikes, an initiative that has transformed diplomacy in the two-and-a-half-year-old civil war.
Kerry would insist any deal must force Syria to take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its chemical arsenal, senior US officials said ahead of Kerry’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Among the first steps Washington wants, one US official said, is for Bashar al-Assad’s government to make a quick, complete, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles as a prelude to allowing them to be inspected and neutralized.
This week’s eleventh-hour Russian initiative interrupted a Western march to war, persuading President Barack Obama to put on hold a plan for military strikes to punish Assad for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians on August 21.
Syria, which denies it was behind that attack, has agreed to Moscow’s proposal that it give up its chemical weapons stocks, averting what would have been the first direct Western intervention in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Assad as saying he had agreed because of Moscow’s diplomacy, not Washington’s threats.
“Syria is placing its chemical weapons under international control because of Russia. The US threats did not influence the decision,” Interfax quoted him as telling Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24 television channel.
A version of the Russian plan that leaked to the newspaper Kommersant described four stages: Syria would join the world body that enforces a chemical weapons ban, declare production and storage sites, invite inspectors, and then decide with the inspectors how and by whom stockpiles would be destroyed.
In the past Syria had not confirmed it held chemical weapons. It was not a party to treaties that banned their possession and required disclosure, though it is bound by the Geneva Conventions that prohibit their use in warfare.
While the diplomats gathered in Switzerland, the war ground on relentlessly in Syria. Activists said warplanes bombed one of the main hospitals serving rebel-held territory in the north of the country, killing at least 11 civilians including two doctors. (Reuters)