UPDATE: US seeks quick proof Syria ready to abandon chemical weapons

Reuters , Thursday 12 Sep 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry is to hold at least two days of talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the plan, floated by Moscow this week, for Syria to give up its chemical weapons

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, centre, on arrival at Cointrin Airport, in Geneva, prior to his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the ongoing problems in Syria, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 (Photo: AP)

The United States will insist that Syria take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its chemical arsenal, senior US officials said, as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Thursday for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Among the first steps Washington wants, one US official said, is for the government of Bashar Al-Assad to quickly make a complete, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles as a prelude to inspecting and neutralising them.

The aim, the official said, "is to see if there's reality here, or not" in a Russian proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The United States and its allies say the Damascus government used those weapons in deadly attacks outside the Syrian capital 21 August.

Kerry plans to hold at least two days of talks with Lavrov on the plan, floated by Moscow this week and rapidly accepted by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's government.

The hope, US officials said, is that Kerry and Lavrov can agree on a blueprint for Syrian disarmament whose main points would be adopted in a UN Security Council resolution.

Kerry also will meet Thursday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN/Arab League envoy for Syria.

The US secretary of state is accompanied by a large delegation of State Department and Pentagon nonproliferation experts, and a representative of the US intelligence community, in anticipation of detailed, arms control-style talks on how to turn the Russian offer into a concrete disarmament plan.

Kerry's delegation will present the Russians with US intelligence agencies' assessment of the scope of Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure, believed to be among the world's largest said the US official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

US President Barack Obama, whose efforts to gain public and congressional backing for US military action in Syria have made no headway, cautiously embraced Russia's diplomatic proposal in a prime-time White House speech Tuesday.

But US officials acknowledge it is far from clear, for both political and logistical reasons, whether an agreement can be struck.

Kerry himself was almost dismissive, in an apparently off-hand comment earlier this week, on the possibility that Syria might agree to disarm its chemical weapons.

Underscoring the gap that remains between Russia and the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin in an op-ed in The New York Times reiterated Moscow's view that it was Syrian rebels, not the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, who used poison gas on 21 August.

The desire to avoid a prolonged diplomatic process that would ease international pressure on Al-Assad prompted Kerry and his team to insist on quick signs of good faith from the Syrian leader.

"What we are seeking ... is the rapid removal of the repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime. And that means a rapid beginning to international control" over the stockpiles, said a second senior official travelling with Kerry.

Weapons declarations like the one the United States wants from Syria have long been a feature of arms control agreements, going back to Cold War efforts to limit nuclear weapons.

Syria this week acknowledged, apparently for the first time, that it has chemical weapons, but has blamed the 21 August attack on rebels.

Inspecting, securing and neutralising chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people will be a stiff challenge, US officials acknowledge.

"It is doable, but difficult and complicated," the first US official said.

The second US official said Syria's chemical weapons stocks are "much larger" than those held by Libya, which voluntarily agreed to abandon them under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But they are "much smaller" than the arsenals held by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, before both sides agreed to move to eliminate them.

The US and Russian delegations are also expected to discuss the question of how to provide security for any weapons inspectors who would go to Syria.

Asked whether US specialists might join any inspection teams in Syria, the first official said: "We're not ruling anything in or out."

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