Kerry to Geneva Thursday to meet with Russian counterpart on Syria
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Geneva on Thursday for a high-stakes meeting with his Russian counterpart that could tip the balance on whether the United States strikes Syria militarily over alleged chemical weapons use.
Separately, sources said U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are expected to deliver their report as early as Monday or Tuesday next week to the Security Council about the incident fueling the standoff with the United States — an August 21 sarin gas attack the Obama administration says killed more than 1,400 people and blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Obama, in fact, has called for Syria to be punished for violating a longstanding global ban on chemical weapons, calling the attack a moral abomination that Americans and the international community cannot tolerate.
Al-Assad’s government denies gassing its own people, and Russia has stood by them in challenging the U.S.-led claims and what it calls a dangerous rush to war.
Moscow’s proposal to address the crisis — and al-Assad’s chemical weapons — will be centered over the next two days in Switzerland, where Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The proposal has sidelined Obama’s drive to win public and congressional support for military strikes against Syria.
The pair will discuss the specifics of Moscow’s plan that would put Syria’s chemical stockpiles under international control, an initiative that’s been described as a difficult but momentous step to nullify the threat of weapons of mass destruction and diffuse the crisis without U.S. military intervention.
In a nationally televised speech Tuesday, Obama said he was willing to test the seriousness and feasibility of the proposal before resuming his push for congressional authorization for military action, which at the moment appears unlikely to succeed.
Kerry will take the lead in dealing with the Russians, Obama said.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said in his prime-time address to a war-weary public skeptical of another military venture in the Middle East.
“But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
‘Aim is to have these weapons destroyed’
A day before meeting face-to-face, Kerry and Lavrov talked by phone Wednesday about their “shared objective of having a substantive discussion about the mechanics of identifying, verifying and ultimately destroying Assad’s chemical weapons,” said a senior State Department official.
Ambassadors from the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — met the same day for less than an hour, a diplomat with knowledge of the meeting said.
Russian officials have submitted a plan to the United States, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported Wednesday, citing a Russian diplomatic source.
Yet White House spokesman Jay Carney said that, while conversations have taken place, he was unaware of a full formal proposal.
“I think we’re not at the stage of putting down public pieces of paper,” he said.
Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s emissary to the European Union, explained that the plan calls for Syria’s chemical weapons to be placed under international supervision — inside that country initially, at least.
“The ultimate aim is to have these weapons destroyed,” Chizhov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
He acknowledged the task of gaining control of the weapons and destroying them with civil war raging in Syria won’t be easy, voicing worries about what rebel fighters might do.
Separately, the United States, France, and Britain discussed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution, according to a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron.
How long will window be open?
Obama administration officials have not disclosed how long they want to keep open the window for a diplomatic solution.
After Obama’s meeting this week with Senate Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin said the president asked asked lawmakers “for some time to work things out — a matter of days into next week.” Another Senate Democrat, though, said it could take weeks to determine if diplomatic efforts will pan out.
Members of Congress will watch Kerry’s trip closely for a sense of Obama’s next move following weeks of beating the drum for military action against Syria.
“If diplomacy fails, he’s painted himself into a corner,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN after Obama’s speech. “The leader of the free world can’t say all these things at the end of the day and do nothing.”
Senior State Department officials have cautioned that negotiations over the proposed deal may not conclude after the scheduled round of talks in Geneva. The plan would be to take any final deal to the U.N. Security Council to be formalized in a resolution.
Outcome far from certain
While Obama has asked Congress to hold off for the moment on considering a military strike, he did say that he had ordered the armed forces to maintain its posture in the region “to keep the pressure on Assad.”
Obama has said the operation would be targeted, limited and not involve U.S. ground forces. The goal would be to degrade al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.
The path to any Security Council vote addressing Syria and its chemical weapons stockpile is far from certain. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country could veto any measure there that contains a threat of military action.
Analysts say Kerry has his work cut out for him.
“I think it’s unlikely the Russian government is going to relent on this issue of whether or not it would support the use of force in a security council resolution,” Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government told CNN.
“They’ve been consistent since day one of the Syrian crisis that they did not want to see the United States or anyone else use force. I think that’s one of the ambitions the Russians have going into this negotiation in Geneva,” he added.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an exclusive interview on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that Kerry must not take the threat of force off the table in his talks with the Russians even if they insist he drop it.
“This is the way that diplomacy works. You use the threat of the use of force to get some action in diplomacy, and then diplomacy just to figure out what you do about the threat of the use of force,” said Albright, who served as America’s top diplomat under President Bill Clinton.
“One of the things I know from trying to get Security Council resolutions is that they take a while,” said Albright. “But my personal feeling here is that it is that threat of the use of force, and the president made very clear that our ships would stay in the area, and that the use of force would stay on the table.”