Syria chemical weapons update: Lots of talks but no answers so far

We have talks about talks on Syria but no answer to the main question: Will the United States launch a military attack?

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart announced Friday that while negotiating a solution to the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons, they also would try to restart parallel talks on the broader issue of ending the Syrian civil war.

The mind-numbing prospect of yet another round of negotiations signaled a potentially bigger endgame for the United States and Russia in the hastily arranged meeting they began on Thursday in Geneva and continued Friday.

Now, the stakes have gotten higher. At first, it was about Russia's sudden proposal this week for Syria to give up control of its chemical weapons, which the United States demanded in order for President Barack Obama to drop plans to launch military strikes.

Friday's announcement that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would meet again this month in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly linked the chemical weapons issue to the stalled Syrian peace process that began last year.

Progress in the broader peace process will largely depend on whether the current negotiations in Geneva on Syria's chemical weapons succeed, Kerry added.

Specifically, a communique from last year's Syrian peace talks attended by all parties called for a ceasefire and establishing a fully inclusive transitional government to write a new constitution.

Weapons experts say that the immediate goal of having the international community take control of Syria's chemical arsenal would be extremely difficult -- which translates to virtually impossible -- amid a civil war.

They cite the logistics of securing such dangerous chemical agents to ensure they eventually get destroyed instead of ending up in undesirable hands.

An August 21 gas attack on suburban Damascus that the United States blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime caused Obama to threaten a military strike intended to prevent further use of banned chemical weapons.

After months of blocking U.N. action against Syria sought by the United States and European allies, Russia reversed itself by proposing Monday that Syria's stockpiles be put under international control.

Al-Assad quickly agreed, leading to the talks between Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva that began Thursday. Syria also told the United Nations on Thursday that it has sent the paperwork for joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such armaments.

However, al-Assad also insisted Thursday that Obama must drop his threat of military action, a demand echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking to reporters Friday after he and Lavrov met with Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kerry said conversations about Syria's chemical weapons had been "constructive."

Kerry and Lavrov also said they would meet at some point amid the U.N. General Assembly, which begins September 24, to try to set up a second round of Syrian peace talks.

Obama is "deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know Russia is likewise," Kerry said. "We are working hard to find common ground to be able to make that happen. And we discussed some of the homework that we both need to do."

Lavrov said Russia had promoted a peaceful solution to Syria's civil war from when it started in 2011, adding that the communique agreed to in last year's first round of peace talks involving all the parties had been "basically abandoned."

On chemical weapons, Lavrov said international officials had to work together "to design a road which would make sure that this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical."

AL-ASSAD: STOP THE THREATS

The challenge facing the chemical weapons negotiations was made clear by the conflicting positions of the United States and Syria on Obama's threat of a military strike.

Al-Assad told Russian TV on Thursday that the United States must call off any potential attack on Syrian government forces before he gives up his large chemical weapons arsenal.

"This bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria," he said.

But Kerry made clear Thursday that the threat of a U.S. military strike remains on the table.

"This is not a game," he said, adding that Syria and its ally Russia must show that they are serious about the Syrian government having its chemical weapons destroyed.

Any agreement reached must be "comprehensive," "verifiable," "credible" and "able to be implemented in a timely fashion," Kerry said, adding that "there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."

While the Obama administration and its allies accuse the Syrian regime of carrying out the August 21 attack that killed hundreds, the Syrian government blames opposition forces.

In response, U.S. officials point out that the rockets that carried the poison gas came from territory controlled by the regime and landed

in opposition or contested territory, and that the opposition lacked the capability or access to such armaments to have been responsible.

CITING REGULATIONS

Syria has since acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons and wants to join the global convention that bans them.

On Thursday, al-Assad alluded to convention regulations, saying they give Syria a standard 30 days to provide information on its stockpiles to the international community.

Kerry appeared to reject that in his opening remarks for the talks with Lavrov. Referring to al-Assad's comment, Kerry said, "We believe there is nothing standard about this process."

Lavrov and Kerry are joined by full diplomatic teams, including weapons experts, for the talks that the Obama administration considers a litmus test for whether Russia is serious in pushing Syria to give up hundreds of tons of chemical arms.

NEGOTIATION BEGINNINGS

Kerry publicly broached the idea of Syria turning over control of its chemical weapons in response to a journalist's question Monday that such a step would prevent a U.S. attack.

In a move that appeared to catch the Obama administration by surprise, Russia then formally proposed putting the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control.

The Kerry-Lavrov talks seek to develop a resolution that would go to the U.N. Security Council.

However, Russia's steadfast opposition to any U.N. action on Syria raises questions about whether the Geneva talks are merely a stall tactic to put off the military intervention threatened by Obama.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has blocked previous U.N. action sought by the United States and NATO allies against Syria.

POLITICAL HURDLES

Obama had tried to put together a NATO coalition to attack Syria, but the British Parliament voted against taking part, denying him a normally reliable ally.

He then asked Congress to authorize a military response in Syria but appeared in danger of losing that vote until the Russian proposal Monday provided a diplomatic opening.

In a speech to the nation Tuesday night, Obama made moral and strategic arguments for taking action on Syria, challenging Congress and the American public to look at video footage of victims of the chemical attack.

Letting al-Assad get away with it would harm the security of the United States and its allies, the president said.

Obama insists that he has the authority to attack Syria without congressional approval, but he says he decided to seek the support of legislators for the sake of national unity.

Opponents of a U.S. military strike argue that it could lead to another lengthy entanglement overseas and that Obama's proposal for limited strikes would fail to eliminate the threat of Syria's chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official told CNN that CIA-funded weapons have begun flowing to Syrian rebels, as pledged by the administration in June, although some opposition figures said they had yet to receive such weapons.

Some in Washington see the arming of rebel forces as a counterweight to Russia's supplying of al-Assad's government with arms. But there are fears that weapons provided by the United States could end up in the hands of rebel groups affiliated with al Qaeda.

Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said it hopes that its "military supplies will increase in the coming days."

The Free Syrian Army is also "issuing guarantees regarding receiving ... weapons and ammunition" and is "ensuring" they will never fall into "the wrong hands of extremist groups or undisciplined (rebel) elements," al-Mokdad said.

More than 100,000 people have died in a civil war that's dragged on for more than two years, the United Nations says, and many more have fled Syria.

The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that a first group of 107 highly vulnerable Syrian refugees had arrived in the German city of Hanover from Lebanon, under a special humanitarian program announced by the German government this year.

The program provides for up to 5,000 places for Syrian refugees, making it the biggest relocation program in existence for the most vulnerable victims of the Syria crisis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. The refugees have the right to stay in Germany for at least two years and have access to medical and social services and education.

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