(Updates with Ban’s comments starting in fourth paragraph. See EXTRA for more on the Syria conflict.)
Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reported a “constructive” start to talks with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons, while giving no sign of a breakthrough in negotiations.
“We would both agree that we had constructive conversations regarding that, but those conversations are continuing,” Kerry said in Geneva today after initial meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Obstacles included a U.S. refusal to take military options off the table, a Russian official said under condition of anonymity. For its part, the U.S. has demanded that Syria be held to tight timelines in putting its chemical warfare agents under international control.
In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said today that a report by UN inspectors will confirm that chemical weapons were used Aug. 21, in what the U.S. says was a regime attack that killed more than 1,400 people in an opposition-controlled area near Damascus. The UN team wasn’t permitted under its mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, and Syria and Russia have blamed anti-regime “terrorists.”
While it is up to the Syrian people to decide whether to oust President Bashar al-Assad, Ban said at a UN development forum in New York, the regime’s leader has “committed many crimes against humanity” and will be held accountable when the conflict is over.
Looking beyond the immediate focus on efforts to turn over Syria’s chemical arsenal to international control, Kerry and Lavrov also discussed today prospects for convening a long- proposed peace conference on Syria. The talks in Geneva continued into the evening. From Switzerland, Kerry is scheduled to travel Sept. 15 to Jerusalem to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Oil prices fell today, with West Texas Intermediate crude headed for its biggest weekly drop since July as the Syria talks continued. WTI for October delivery slid 94 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $107.66 a barrel at 12:07 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That price is down from a two-year high of $110.53 on Sept. 6.
President Barack Obama has delayed a possible U.S. military intervention twice: first, on Aug. 31, to consult Congress, and then on Sept. 10 to take up Russia’s proposal for international oversight of Syria’s chemicals arsenal.
Assad and Russia, Syria’s principal great-power ally since the 1970s, have exploited Obama’s focus on ridding the country of chemical weapons while seeking to keep the U.S. out of the civil war.
The goal is to “design a road that makes sure this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical,” Lavrov said of the chemical weapons.
The chemical weapons bargaining operated on two levels: Kerry negotiated with Lavrov in Geneva and, via Russia as an intermediary, with a Syrian regime that used the international media to get its points across.
Assad appeared on Russian television yesterday to announce that Syria would sign an international protocol known as the Chemical Weapons Convention banning chemical weapons and to warn the U.S. that the solution to the strife wouldn’t be a “one-way street.”
Laying out his demands on Russian state TV channel Rossiya 24, Assad said the U.S. must forswear any military strike and cease arming the rebel “terrorists” fighting to overthrow his regime.
The U.S. will “retain the military option and we will maintain our military readiness while the Geneva process is ongoing,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters today in Washington.
Asked if the Navy can keep the four destroyers now on station in the eastern Mediterranean there indefinitely, Little said, “I can’t say for sure we won’t rotate out ships, but suffice it to say we will maintain a sufficient posture to be able to undertake military action if directed.”
The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body that administers the convention, said in a statement today that Syria’s application to join the accord and to obtain technical assistance is being considered. At the UN yesterday, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said his country now considers itself bound by the accord as it undertakes the process necessary to become the 190th signatory nation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Syria’s pledge to give up its chemical war-making capacity and insisted on retaining the power to block a U.S. armed response by using Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council.
“Russia sees itself still as a major geopolitical player, as a superpower,” John Lough, a Russian specialist at London’s Chatham House research institute, said on Bloomberg Television. “It sees that through the United Nations it can exert a form of restraint on the United States.”
Russia’s diplomatic initiative -- taken by Putin to the American people in a New York Times opinion piece this week -- met with skepticism among rebels battling to end Assad’s 13-year grip on power.
Syria’s National Coalition, the main political opposition group, voiced “doubt and trepidation” about Assad’s pledge to fall in line with the international ban on chemical warfare.
“The regime’s claims and promises are just a new attempt to mislead the international community,” the coalition said in an e-mailed statement. “It’s imperative that the threat of using force remain on the table.”
Kerry phoned opposition leaders to offer reassurance yesterday, saying the U.S. will insist on a verifiable agreement on the chemical-arms handover and will keep the military option alive, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified.
France, the main U.S. ally in any military operation, pressed for a strongly worded UN Security Council resolution to govern Syria’s behavior. Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said Syrian chemicals disarmament must be “rapid, precise, controlled, verified and verifiable.”
U.S.-Russian talks over chemical weapons were entwined with a broader diplomatic push to end the hostilities by bringing Assad and the opposition to the negotiating table.
In that effort, Kerry and Lavrov met for an hour early today with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The three said efforts to spur the warring Syrian factions toward a political settlement will continue at the UN General Assembly later this month, possibly setting a date for a peace conference.
The prospects for a Geneva peace conference “obviously depend” on whether the current talks to have Syria surrender control of its chemical weapons are successful, Kerry told reporters.
Putting together intra-Syrian peace talks is “extremely important,” Brahimi said. Efforts to get Assad and the opposition talking have failed since world powers met in Geneva in June 2012.
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov, Olga Tanas, Stephen Bierman, Stepan Kravchenko and Torrey Clark in Moscow, Gregory Viscusi in Paris, Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai, Anna Edwards and Guy Johnson in London, Moming Zhou in New York, James G. Neuger in Brussels, Tony Capaccio in Washington and Sangwon Yoon in United Nations. Editors: Bob Drummond, Larry Liebert