Friday, December 15, 2017
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U.S.-Russia talks on Syria tense

GENEVA — U.S.-Russian talks over eliminating Syria's chemical weapons began here Thursday on a wary note, as Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. military forces remained poised to attack Syria if a credible agreement is not rapidly reached and implemented.

Syrian President Bashar Assad added to the tension by saying that he is willing to cede control of his chemical arsenal to international control — but only if the United States stops threatening military action and arming rebel forces trying to unseat him.

Assad, in an interview with a Russian television station, said he is prepared to sign the international convention banning the weapons and would adhere to its "standard procedure" of handing over stockpile data a month later.

Kerry made clear that he had a much shorter time frame in mind and that Assad was not a party to the negotiations. "There is nothing 'standard' about this process," he said as he headed into an initial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough," Kerry said.

After an hourlong session to outline the logistics and agenda for the talks, Kerry and Lavrov departed for a joint dinner with their deputies. A senior State Department official said the full delegations would reconvene this morning.

The emergency talks are aimed at laying down a blueprint for international seizure of the weapons that the United States has said Syrian forces used to gas to death more than 1,400 people last month near Damascus. Russia, Syria's main international backer and weapons supplier, offered Monday to negotiate the issue, after President Barack Obama sent U.S. warships to the Mediterranean and asked Congress to authorize a military strike.

The legislation is on hold pending the outcome of what are likely to be two days of talks in Geneva. At the United Nations, the United States, Britain and France have been readying a Security Council resolution designed to authorize the use of force if Syria does not adhere to any U.S.-Russia agreement on the weapons.

As Kerry and Lavrov met, public statements flew between Moscow and Washington.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an open letter to "the American people and their political leaders" published on the New York Times opinion pages, said any use of force would violate international law. (Read Putin's letter on page 7A.)

The United States, he said, was developing a habit of military intervention that had given the country an image of preferring "brute force" over democracy. Noting Obama's reference to "American exceptionalism" during a Tuesday night address on Syria, Putin wrote, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said it was "clear that President Putin has invested his credibility in transferring Assad's chemical weapons to international control and ultimately destroying them. This is significant. Russia is Assad's patron and protector, and the world will note whether Russia can follow through on the commitments that it's made."

"As for the editorial," Carney said, "you know, we're not surprised by President Putin's words. But the fact is that Russia offers a stark contrast that demonstrates why America is exceptional." Putin's government, he added, was "isolated and alone" in backing Assad's assertions that Syrian rebels were responsible for last month's chemical attack.

Lawmakers in Congress were less diplomatic. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was "insulted" by Putin's article.

Despite the tensions, Kerry said the United States is serious "about engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations."

He added that diplomacy cannot become a delaying tactic. "This is not a game," he said.

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