GENEVA — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry opened talks in Geneva Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as international negotiations intensify to get Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal.
Kerry said before the first day of talks that he hopes diplomacy can avoid the need for a U.S. military strike on Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians last month.
Kerry said while the United States and Russia disagree over who was behind the poison gas attack, there is no question that civilians died and chemical weapons are a threat in the Syrian civil war.
Lavrov said he believes the United States wants to reach a consensus with Russia.
Officials traveling with Kerry said he will push the U.S. demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quickly account for all of his chemical stockpiles. U.S. officials said the meetings could last several days.
Assad said in an interview aired on Russian TV Thursday that he will allow the handover of Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
But Kerry rejected Assad's assertion that he can wait one month between signing the global ban on chemical weapon and turning over details about his weapons to the United Nations. Assad calls the one-month waiting period "standard." Kerry says there is nothing "standard" about the current situation.
U.S. officials have said the Russian proposal for securing and destroying the Syrian weapons is possible but "difficult and complicated."
Weapons to rebels
In other developments, Obama administration officials told several U.S. news organizations that the Central Intelligence Agency has begun delivering light weapons to moderate Syrian rebels for the first time in Syria's two-and-a-half year conflict.
But Free Syrian Army rebel chief Salim Idris appeared to dispute that claim, telling U.S. broadcaster NPR that his fighters have not received "any weapons from our American friends."
Russian President Vladimir Putin used an opinion piece in The New York Times newspaper to warn the United States against conducting military strikes against the Assad government, a longtime Russian ally.
Putin stressed the need to work through the United Nations and not to conduct unilateral military action in Syria. He said a U.S. military strike "would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism," and could negatively affect efforts to address Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Putin also said there is "every reason" to believe opposition fighters were the ones responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria in a bid to draw an outside military response.
U.S. President Barack Obama, and other Western leaders, however, blame Syrian forces for the deadly chemical attack last month near Damascus. The U.S. says 1,400 people were killed when Syrian forces used poison gas against civilians.
Obama says it was the U.S. military threat that forced the Assad government to negotiate through Russia. Obama this week cautiously endorsed Russia's diplomatic initiative, but said the U.S. military will be ready to respond if diplomacy fails.
The U.S. has been openly skeptical about the intentions of Syrian President Assad and his ally Russia.
"Well, we certainly have a long and winding history with the Russians, so again, we are not going into this… We are going into this eyes wide open and the Secretary [of State John Kerry], when he spoke with the foreign minister [of Russia, Sergei Lavrov] just two days ago, made clear we are not going to play games here," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Envoys from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - are discussing a possible draft resolution on securing and dismantling Syria's chemical weapons.
Russia has already said it will block any attempt to include the potential use of military force against Syria to ensure it complies with any order.
U.N. officials hopeful
U.N. officials say they remain hopeful about diplomacy.
"[S]ecretary-general [Ban Ki-moon] strongly welcomes the emergence of serious international discussions that could lead to an agreement in the Security Council to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons so as to prevent their use," said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq.
Still, Free Syrian Army chief Salim Idris rejected Russia's proposal in a video posted online, saying the international community should not only remove the weapons, but also punish those responsible for using them.
Obama says U.S. ships in the Mediterranean region are staying in place to keep pressure on the Syrian government to live up to any agreement on giving up its chemical weapons.
The Syrian stockpile is one of the world's largest, and is scattered at sites across the country.
Middle East and national security expert Ari Ratner said every chance for a negotiated solution must be taken.
"What exactly that negotiated solution looks like remains to be discussed, both within Syria, of course, and also in a broader international community," he said. "But if these past two weeks of build-up to war, which have been quite chaotic in many respects, achieve something, a push towards diplomacy, even if it ultimately fails, it ought to be tried one last time."
He added that those opposing force in Syria would be more willing to reconsider military action if they saw that diplomatic efforts were made to resolve the crisis.