Private Talks on Syria's Chemical Weapons Begin Amidst Public Bluster

John Kerry begins negotiations with Russia aimed at disarming Syria's chemical weapons — which Assad has now agreed to turn over. Presumably Kerry's Russian peer will be more forthright in person than Putin was in The Times.

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Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday morning to begin two days of negotiations with his Russian peer aimed at developing a plan to disarm Syria's chemical weapon stockpile. Presumably the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, will be more forthright in person than his boss was in the pages of The New York Times.

Kerry arrives with some skepticism. According to Politico, a State Department spokesperson described Kerry's goal as being to "test the seriousness of this proposal." The intended outcome is meant to be parallel to an attempt to draft a response at the United Nations, a process burdened by Russia's insistence that the disarmament not be codified to include a military response should its longstanding ally Syria not live up to its end of the bargain.

The Telegraph reports the sketchy outlines of what Russia thinks the proposal should include:

Under the plans, Syria would first join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Damascus would then make a declaration of its chemical weapons production and storage facilities, and a team of inspectors would be dispatched to the sites. Finally, agreement would be reached on how the weapons would be destroyed, [the Russian paper] Kommersant reported citing a Russian diplomatic source.

A report Thursday morning indicates that Syrian president Bashar al Assad has agreed to turn over those weapons — though not, he said, because he was intimidated by the United States.

During a briefing on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary explained that "each side — the American and the Russian side — will bring technical experts, so bringing a team, a delegation to evaluate the proposal and to assess paths forward" during the Geneva discussions. It's the second year in a row that talks focused on Syria have been held in Geneva, though the goal of these talks — not including a plan to end the civil war — is less lofty. During a speech on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged his organization's "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria over the past two and a half years" — a failure which stems in part from Russia's insistent veto of any response at the UN Security Council.

In his Times opinion piece that ran Thursday morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin insisted that such vetoes were how the UN was intended to work, forcing all parties to reach consensus before action. As Sim Shuster wrote for Time on Tuesday, Russian's decision to act at this point stems from an urgent need to maintain that position.

From Moscow’s point of view, a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only cripple its long-standing ally, but it would also undermine Russia’s biggest trump card on the international stage — its veto power in the U.N. Security Council. In the past few days, world leaders have decried the ineffectiveness of the Security Council, which has been unable to pass any meaningful resolutions on Syria because of repeated vetoes from Russia and China. … With that in mind, Russia set about making itself as useful as possible in the Syrian crisis over the past week, so that it could not be dismissed and sidelined as a spoiler on the international stage.

Putin also argued in his Times article that it was not Assad's regime that launched the August 21 attack at the heart of the current dispute, saying that Syrian rebels were responsible for the attack in order to draw the West into the conflict. (Apparently referring to a report from the Kremlin-controlled RT network, he also claimed the rebels planned to strike Israel next.) Putin's assertive defense of his ally Assad contradicts evidence apparently gathered by the United States — but also evidence that will soon emerge from the United Nations and the independent analysis of Human Rights Watch.

Despite blaming the rebels, Putin, fairly obviously undermining his own argument, endorsed the disarmament to which Assad has apparently consented and which Lavrov and Kerry will be discussing. There are few times when the expression "the Devil is in the details" is more apt than in complex negotiations aimed at removing the ability of a country to murder its own people. Kerry and Lavrov, who've had a shaky past, may need to set aside culpability and Russia's displeasure with America's ongoing threat to use force in the interest of figuring out a way to take away one big problem in a conflict replete with many others. Even if agreement is reached, dismantling a chemical weapons stockpile is tricky even when it's not happening in the middle of a war, as The Times reported on Wednesday. But you have to start somewhere.

Update, 1:45 p.m.: During a brief press conference in the early evening in Switzerland, Kerry and Lavrov outlined the first day of discussions. Most notable was Kerry's flat rejection of a request from the Syrian regime to be given 30 days to submit data on their weapons cache — and a softening of how the U.S. could respond if diplomacy fails: "force might be necessary."

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