Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says his government agreed to surrender its chemical arms in response to Russia's initiative and not because of the U.S. attack threats, news that comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva to hash out details of the weapons retrieval plan.
Assad told Russia's state Rossiya 24 news channel in an interview that is set to be broadcast fully later Thursday that "Syria is transferring chemical weapons under international control because of Russia."
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He added that "the U.S. threats hadn't influenced" his government's decision, and that Syria would submit documents to the United Nations for an agreement governing the handover of its chemical arsenal.
It was not clear when the interview was recorded.
Russia on Monday proposed that Syria place its chemical weapons under international control and eventually dismantle them to avert a U.S. strike, and Syria quickly accepted the proposal.
Kerry arrived in Geneva on Thursday to test the seriousness of the Russia-Syria proposal, reached after the U.S. threatened military strikes on the war-torn country following alleged chemical attacks in the Damascus area last month.
Kerry and a team of U.S. experts will have at least two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts through Friday. They hope to emerge with an outline of how some 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials as well as potential delivery systems can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.
Officials with Kerry said they would be looking for a rapid agreement on principles for the process with Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles.
One official said the task is "doable but difficult and complicated."
The official said the U.S. is looking for signs of Russian seriousness and thinks it will know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another official described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as "an opening position" that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts. The U.S. team includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publically on the sensitive negotiations, said the teams that eventually go into Syria to do the work would have to have an international mix, as would their security.
In an opinion piece published Thursday in the New York Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote, "The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction."
Putin urged the U.S. not to launch a military strike on Syria, saying, "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States."
Kerry planned to meet Thursday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, before sitting down with Lavrov, who described the focus of his meeting with Kerry as largely on "technical issues."
"Undoubtedly, it's necessary to make sure that Syria joins the convention on prohibition of chemical weapons, which would envisage Syria declaring the locations of its chemical weapons depots, its chemical weapons program," said Lavrov, who spoke at a briefing in Astana, Kazakhstan, before heading to Geneva. "On that basis, the experts will determine what specific measures need to be taken to safeguard those depots and arsenals."
CIA delivered machine-guns to Syrian rebels
The hastily arranged meeting in Geneva comes as the White House tries to pin success or failure of the diplomatic track on Russia's willingness to take a tough line with its ally Syria. Syrian rebels, however, are disappointed at best in President Barack Obama's decision to forgo a military strike in favour of an agreement to take access to chemical weapons away from Syrian President Assad.
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At the same time, the CIA has been delivering light machine-guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following Obama's decision to arm the rebels.
The agency has also arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry like rocket-propelled grenades through a third party, presumably one of the Gulf countries that has been arming the rebels, a senior U.S. intelligence official and two former intelligence officials said Thursday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.
The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal first reported the lethal aid.
Top rebel commander Gen. Salim Idris, speaking for the Free Syrian Army, told National Public Radio on Thursday that rebels had received no such aid from the U.S. The CIA declined to comment.
The officials said the aid has been arriving for more than a month, much of it delivered through a third party, which could explain why the rebel commander Idris does not believe the U.S. directly delivered the aid. The officials said the aid is delivered to commanders who have been vetted by the CIA, and the path of the weaponry is tracked through trusted parties within the country — though eventually, once they're in the hands of fighters, the U.S. loses sight of where the weapons go.
The rebels continue to request sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry to take out the Syrian regime's helicopters, but the officials said neither the U.S. nor Syria's neighbouring countries, like Jordan or Israel, wants the rebels to have weaponry that may fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group al-Nusra, or captured by Hezbollah fighters who are bolstering the Syrian army's effort.
The CIA program is classified as covert, which means it would be briefed to Congress's intelligence committees but not its defence committees. That explains why some senior lawmakers on the defense committees have complained the lethal aid was not arriving, two of the officials said.
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In meetings planned for later Thursday and again Friday with Lavrov, Kerry will prod Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to inventory, quarantine and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, according to U.S. officials.
Kerry is accompanied by American chemical weapons experts to look at and possibly expand on Russian ideas for the complex task of safely dealing with the vast stockpiles in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict. Russian technical experts will join Lavrov in the meetings.
The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new UN Security Council resolution being negotiated that would hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. Russia, however, has long opposed UN action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remained ready to strike Syria if ordered, navy secretary Ray Mabus said. Syrian rebels appeared skeptical that U.S. forces would be put to use, saying the Americans have repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion. They pointed to Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
On Capitol Hill, action on any congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia's diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.
"The whole terrain has changed," Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee. "We want to make sure we do nothing that's going to derail what's going on."
That didn't stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama's initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief. Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, accused the president of engaging in "pinball diplomacy."
Earlier Thursday, hours before the Kerry-Lavrov talks were to begin, Syrian rebels blasted the Russian proposal on securing Syria's chemical weapons, saying Assad's government should instead be made to face an international court for last month's attacks near Damascus.
Idris said regime officials should be referred to the International Criminal Court for the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attacks near the Syrian capital that killed hundreds.
Idris said "chemical weapons were the tool of the crime" in the attacks, and that the FSA "categorically rejects the Russian initiative."
With files from Reuters