GENEVA - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov kicked off talks late Thursday in Geneva to get Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal.
Speaking before the evening meeting, Kerry said he hopes diplomacy can avoid a possible U.S. strike on Syria for the alleged role of Syrian government forces in a chemical weapons attack last month outside Damascus.
“We cannot allow that to happen again,” Kerry said, repeating U.S. allegations that the Syrian regime orchestrated the attack.
“Expectations are high,” Kerry said of the talks. “This is not a game.”
Kerry said that while the U.S. and Russia disagree on who was at fault “there is much we agree on” including that civilians died in the attack and that chemical weapons are a threat in the Syria conflict.
“I welcome the Russian delegation,” he said, adding that the U.S. has brought chemical weapons experts along with its entourage. Still, Kerry added it’s too soon to tell if diplomacy will work but that the U.S. is serious in its efforts.
Officials traveling with Kerry said he will emphasize with Sergei Lavrov in Geneva a U.S. demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to quickly account for all of his chemical stockpiles. U.S. officials said the meetings could last several days.
A senior State Department official says Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone before traveling to Geneva to discuss their shared objective of identifying, verifying and ultimately destroying Syria's chemical weapons.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview aired on Russian TV Thursday that he will allow the handover of Syria's chemical weapons to international control.
U.S. officials have said the Russian proposal for securing and destroying the Syrian weapons is possible but "difficult and complicated."
Lavrov said he is "certain there is a chance for peace" in Syria. He made the comment in Kazakhstan before departing for Geneva.
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-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 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 effect 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.
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 Bashar al-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," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "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."
Kerry will also meet Thursday with U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Envoys from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- are discussing a possible resolution for 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.
"The secretary-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, the chief of the rebel Free Syrian Army 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," Ratner 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."
Ratner said 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.