Secretary of State John Kerry opened high-stakes talks with his Russian counterpart Thursday on the Syria crisis and insisted that the government of Bashar Assad must move quickly if it is serious about giving up chemical weapons.
In a move Assad had promised as part of an agreement to avoid U.S. strikes, Syria's U.N. envoy announced that his country became a full member of the global anti-chemical weapons treaty Thursday.
"Legally speaking Syria has become, starting today, a full member of the (chemical weapons) convention," Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afar said after submitting relevant documents to the United Nations.
The secretary-general welcomed the move.
"The Secretary-General welcomes this development, noting that, as depository of the Convention, he has long called for universal accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention," a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. "Given recent events, he hopes that the current talks in Geneva will lead to speedy agreement on a way forward which will be endorsed and assisted by the international community."
But Kerry, speaking to reporters in Geneva, rejected Assad’s reported desire for a standard 30 days to submit information about its chemical stockpile as it tries to avert an American military strike.
“This is not a game,” Kerry said. “It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion. And finally there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place.”
He was standing alongside his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, chided the United States on Thursday in an unusual Op-Ed for The New York Times.
Putin warned that an American attack on Syria would only increase violence, including terrorism. He suggested that Syrian rebels, not Assad’s forces, are the ones who unleashed poison gas last month.
And he characterized recent United States foreign policy as adventurism.
“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States,” he wrote. “Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.”
Lavrov said before his meeting with Kerry that he was convinced the United States believes in finding a peaceful solution.
“We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strikes on the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said.
Assad said in a television interview that Russian diplomacy — not the possibility of an American military strike — was the reason he decided to cede control of his chemical weapons.
“The U.S. threats did not influence the decision,” he said, according to an interview with the Rossiya-24 network that was quoted by Interfax, a Russian news agency.
Russia reshaped the Syria crisis by proposing earlier this week that Syria could try to avoid an American attack by handing its chemical weapons over to international control. The United States had been preparing for a strike, but President Barack Obama said in an address to the country that he would give diplomacy more time.
The United States says it has overwhelming evidence that the forces of Assad used poison gas on Aug. 21 to kill 1,400 rebel fighters and civilians, including more than 400 children.
U.S. officials told NBC News on Thursday that they expect U.N. inspection reports on the attack to be released as early as Monday. U.N. inspectors collected samples in Damascus and provided them to European laboratories Sept. 4.
Asked whether the reports will show that sarin gas was used Aug. 21, a senior U.S. official said: “We’d be surprised if it doesn’t.”
Kerry spoke Thursday with two key figures in the Syrian opposition — Ahmed al-Jarba, president of the Syrian opposition coalition, and Brig. Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army, a senior State Department official told NBC News.
The secretary made clear that he was seeking real commitments to an enforceable agreement to secure and later destroy Syrian chemical weapons, the official said.
Idris later told MSNBC that he was assured that a military strike remains an option if the U.S. determines that Russia and Syria are wasting time. He accused Putin and Lavrov of trying to “deceive the world.”
“We hope that our friends in the United States and in the Western countries help the Syrian people,” he said on the MSNBC program “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
Earlier, a senior official in Israel, the United States' closest ally in the region, expressed cautious support for the Russian proposal.
“I cannot say that we have full faith, but if this Russian proposal ... will really remove the chemical weaponry from Syria, first of all, and will then dismantle it ... then this is a way to end this tragedy and a way to end this threat too," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel's Army Radio, according to Reuters.
The White House has said that the Syrian government killed hundreds of rebels and civilians with chemicals weapons last month outside Damascus, an attack that presented a danger to American security and violated the world’s conscience.
More than 100,000 are estimated to have died since the civil war, which began as a peaceful protest movement in 2011 but turned into a war after a government crackdown. A United Nations report documented eight mass killings in May alone, all but one of which it attributed to Assad's forces.
Thursday's hastily arranged summit in Geneva follows a meeting Wednesday of the five world powers on the United Nations Security Council, including the United States and Russia, to talk about the crisis in Syria.
Envoys from France, Britain and China were at the meeting at United Nations headquarters. Each country has veto power in the Security Council, so consensus is critical if any resolution on the crisis is to come from the U.N. Officials declined to comment about the meeting as they left, according to Reuters.
Also on Thursday, NBC News confirmed that the CIA had finally begun sending weapons to Syrian rebels, a move that ended months of delay in the lethal aid promised by the White House, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures.
A senior U.S. official tells NBC News that it's unlikely the U.S.-supplied weapons will help "tilt the balance" in the civil war against the Syrian military because the rebels are already well-armed with the same kind of small arms through Arab allies.
According to one official, what the rebels really want are “heavier weapons” -- anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
There is no indication that anti-tank weapons are being considered, and U.S. officials say anti-aircraft missiles would almost certainly never be turned over to the rebel forces. U.S. officials say there are already a “number” of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in rebel hands.
NBC News' Peter Alexander, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, and Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published September 12 2013, 2:36 PM