U.S. and Russia at a ‘pivotal point’ in Syria talks

GENEVA/BEIRUT,  (Reuters) – U.S.-Russian talks on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program have reached a “pivotal point,” a U.S. official said, and both nations said yesterday they wanted to renew efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the war in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva to discuss a Russian proposal under which Syria would sign international treaties banning chemical weapons and hand over its stocks of such weapons to the international community for destruction.

The U.S. official said the two sides were “coming to agreement” on the size of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and talks were continuing into today.

U.S. President Barack Obama, after a meeting in Washington with Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, reiterated that he would insist any deal on Syria’s chemical weapons be “verifiable and enforceable.”

In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said the United States did not expect a U.N. Security Council resolution formalising the deal to include potential use of military force. But officials said Obama retained that option.

Independent of the United Nations, Obama has threatened the use of force in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that U.S. officials say killed about 1,400 people. But as part of negotiations toward a U.N. resolution, the United States sees no benefit in trying to include the potential use of force.

The reason is that Washington does not see Russia ever agreeing to such a step and could use its veto power to nix such a resolution, the officials said.

Russia holds a veto on the Security Council and previously used it on three occasions when Western powers sought to condemn Assad over the war in Syria. President Vladimir Putin has said the proposal on chemical weapons will only succeed if the United States and its allies rule out the use of force.

The U.S. officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.N. resolution could include a range of consequences should Syria refuse to give up chemical weapons in a verifiable way. Those consequences could include sanctions.

In Geneva, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the effort toward the U.N. resolution was in its early stages.

“We are not going to prejudge the outcome of negotiations that are just beginning in New York. The U.S. has been clear that for any effort to be credible, it must be verifiable and include consequences for noncompliance,” she said.

After meeting U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Lavrov and Kerry said they hoped to meet in New York in about two weeks, around Sept. 28 during the U.N. General Assembly, to see if they could schedule a new international peace conference on Syria.

The talks between teams led by Kerry and Lavrov, which began on Thursday, are at a “pivotal point” and were continuing into Saturday, the U.S. official told reporters in Geneva.

Kerry told a joint news conference, “We are committed to trying to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world.”

He hoped a date might be set for peace talks, but added, “Much … will depend on the capacity to have success here in the next hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons.”

Lavrov, voicing regret at the failure of an international accord reached in Geneva last year, said he hoped a “Geneva 2” meeting could lead to a political settlement for Syria.

“We agreed … to see where we are and see what the Syrian parties think about it and do about it,” he said.

 

OPPOSITION DISHEARTENED

Assad’s Syrian opponents, many of them disheartened by Obama’s failure to make good on threats to launch military strikes in response to the Aug. 21 gas attack, say they see no place for Assad after the war.

But neither side has been able to finish the fighting, leaving the country’s territory divided and its people in misery, including 2 million who are now refugees abroad.

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