Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Syria Monday, saying he was “very pleased” at news that experts had already begun the process of destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.
In unusual praise for Damascus, Kerry also gave the government of President Bashar Assad credit for quickly complying with the United Nations resolution on destroying its chemical weapons.
At a news conference in Indonesia, where he is on an official visit, Kerry lauded the start of the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria as a "good beginning," and said Washington and Moscow had agreed to press the U.N. to set a date for a Syria peace conference in November.
“We’re very pleased with the pace of what has happened with respect to chemical weapons in a record amount of time,” Kerry said.
“[Syria] agreed in a record period of time to follow the framework that [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov] and I negotiated in Geneva and they put it into place both in The Hague as well as at the United Nations.
“I think that was a terrific example of global cooperation. I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly as they are supposed to. Now, we hope that that will continue.”
Later Monday, the State Department pushed back on the idea that Kerry "praised" the Assad regime for its cooperation.
"I don't think I would characterize what Secretary Kerry said as praising Bashar al-Assad," deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "It is a fact that the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] and the U.N. must work with [the regime], and they have responsibilities to assist in the destruction of these weapons. That's just a fact. That's not conferring legitimacy. That's not giving praise."
Kerry's comments came after the U.N. said international inspectors from the Netherlands-based watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have begun work on ensuring the destruction of weapons.
Under their supervision, "Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of items," said Eri Kaneko, associate spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office.
"This included missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment. The process will continue in the coming days," she added.
The disarmament team arrived in Damascus on Tuesday.
Their mission follows a deadly chemical attack on Aug. 21 aimed at Damascus suburbs under the control of rebel fighters.
While the United States, its allies and the opposition blame the regime of the embattled President Bashar Assad for the attack that killed hundreds, the Syrian government has blamed the rebels.
The attack also prompted the Obama administration to threaten the Syrian regime with military strikes, which set off weeks of diplomatic negotiations that ended with a U.N. resolution on Sept. 27.
More than 100,000 have died since the conflict in Syria began in 2011 with demonstrations that have since degenerated into a bloody civil war.
NBC News' Ali Weinberg contributed to this report.
First published October 7 2013, 12:34 PM