WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry headed late Wednesday to Geneva with a team of arms control experts for intensive talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to try to reach agreement on how to secure and ultimately destroy Syria's chemical weapons.
Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was taking his own arms control experts to the negotiations, holding out the possibility that there would be depth and detail to the talks. But sharp divisions remained between the two powers less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama said he would hold off on a U.S. military strike on Syria and gave a qualified endorsement to a Russian proposal for international monitors to take over the country's chemical arsenal.
The Obama administration is pressing for a "self-enforcing" resolution in the United Nations that would authorize military action if President Bashar Assad of Syria balked at turning over his nation's huge chemical stockpiles. But the Russians want a nonbinding statement and say the United States has to withdraw the threat of force. Obama said in a speech to the nation on Tuesday that naval forces would remain in the region in case Assad backed away from a vaguely worded commitment to cooperate.
As Kerry left, lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill offered a collective sigh of relief as they returned to more prosaic work, having so far dodged a political confrontation with Obama that no one in Washington appeared eager to have. The Senate ended its consideration of a resolution authorizing military force against the Syrian government, moving on to an energy-efficiency bill and putting a potentially historic showdown over U.S. military intervention on hold, at least for now.
The United States wants the talks to focus not only on Syria's chemical weapons but also on securing munitions like bombs or warheads that are designed for chemical attacks, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials. The officials acknowledged that securing the delivery systems for attacks goes far beyond what Lavrov has offered or is likely to agree to in Geneva this week.
Adding to the complexity of the diplomatic task is the reality that even if a deal is reached, it would take a year or more to destroy Syria's chemical stores. One estimate by Pentagon officials determined that Assad has 1,400 tons of sarin, VX and mustard agents, and that it would take at least 200 to 300 days to take control of the weapons and, short of destruction, to make them unusable.
On Wednesday, White House officials refused to set a timeline for any agreement in Geneva or for a subsequent action by the U.N. on a resolution to enforce the deal. The Russians, in the meantime, have sent the United States a written proposal on how to handle Assad's chemical weapons, but administration officials said it lacked detail on how the stockpiles would be secured, verified and destroyed.
"This is a process that will take a certain amount of time," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. "But it needs to be credible. It needs to be verifiable. And we will work with our allies and partners to test whether or not that can be achieved."
Even as Congress turned to other business, several prominent lawmakers said Wednesday that the threat of force should be maintained alongside the diplomatic efforts. A bipartisan group of senators continued talks on revisiting a resolution to authorize force in Syria if international monitors could not secure the chemical weapons within a matter of days, not weeks.
"If they're committed to removing Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stocks, we know how to do that," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview. He said he "would love" to see a resolution of force "back on the floor, sooner rather than later."
Some Democrats echoed McCain. "If there is any indication that negotiations are not serious or will not effectively prevent further atrocities, the Senate will act quickly to give the president the authority to hold the Assad regime accountable," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader.
Other lawmakers continued to express skepticism about any attack, saying the president failed in his speech on Tuesday to provide enough information about the diplomatic efforts. Obama did not say how long he would wait for diplomacy to work.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the leader of the opposition to the use of force in Syria, predicted that the Senate may soon be confronted with the issue again if diplomacy fails.
"I'm hoping we find a diplomatic solution," Paul said. "Ultimately, people realize a diplomatic solution where chemical weapons went under international control is better than any military effort could have ever gotten."