GENEVA - US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov opened talks on Thursday on disarming Syria's chemical weapons programs, but differences emerged at the outset of the expected two-day negotiations.
Kerry reiterated the US position that military force might be needed against Syria if diplomacy over President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stockpile fails.
"President (Barack) Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons," Kerry said, as Lavrov looked on.
But Lavrov made it clear that Russia wants the United States to set aside its military threats for now.
"We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic," he said. "I am convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow peaceful way of resolution of conflict in Syria."
As the US Congress debated military strikes as a response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus, Russia proposed that Syria instead agree to give up its chemical arms.
Kerry made clear that Washington, while exploring the offer, remains skeptical. And he pushed back on a reported offer from the Syrian government, as part of a move to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, to supply data on its chemical arsenal within 30 days, the standard practice.
Crisis in Syria - full JPost.com coverage
"We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved, not only the existence of these weapons but they have been used," Kerry said.
"Expectations are high. They are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia, to deliver on the promise of this moment," Kerry said. "This is not a game and I said that to my friend Sergei when we talked about it initially. It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion, and finally there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."
Earlier on Thursday, RIA news agency quoted Assad as saying in a television interview that Syria will fulfill an initiative to hand over its chemical weapons only
when the United States stops threatening to strike.
"When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized," he was quoted as saying.
Assad also said Thursday that Syria's decision to cede control of its chemical weapons was the result of a Russian proposal, not the threat of US military intervention, Interfax news agency reported.
US warns Syria against using stalling tactics
Also on Thursday, the US State Department said that documents Syria sent to the United Nations on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty cannot be a substitute for disarmament or a stalling tactic.
Echoing Kerry's remarks, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US option to use military force remains on the table while discussions proceed with Russia on how to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.
The United Nations said it had received Syria's application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, a multilateral pact that bar states that are party to it from developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, transferring or retaining such weapons.
States that are a party to the agreement also agree to destroy any stockpiles of chemical weapons that they may hold over time as well as the facilities that produced them.
Asked about Syria submitting a document to United Nations and seeking to join the agreement, Harf replied: "The Chemical Weapons Convention is an important thing ... but that that would not be a substitute for working with us and the Russians to verify and ultimately destroy their stockpile."