WASHINGTON, September 11 (by Karin Zeitvogel for RIA Novosti) – US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for hastily organized talks on a Russian plan to prevent a US attack on Syria by placing the war-torn country’s chemical weapons under international control.
The White House said Kerry and Lavrov would “explore the path forward” on Syria during their discussions in Geneva while the State Department said Kerry would be accompanied by a team of US technical experts who would “test the seriousness of the proposal” from Moscow.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone on Wednesday shortly before Kerry was to depart from Washington. In a statement, the ministry said the two men discussed the “situation surrounding Syria” but provided no further substantive details.
The top Russian and US diplomats and their delegations planned to “talk specifics of how to get it done and the mechanics of verifying, securing and ultimately destroying Syria’s chemical weapons,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Psaki played down reports from Russia that said Moscow has sent its proposal for Syria to the Washington, saying what the State Department has received was “ideas that will be part of the discussion” in Geneva, and not a fully developed proposal.
The Geneva talks are scheduled to start Thursday and run for at least two days, with pundits predicting that they could run into next week.
They came about amid US threats to launch a military strike on Syria in response to an attack on August 21, apparently involving chemical weapons, that Washington blames on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Those threats were put on hold this week when Russia jumped on a comment made by Kerry in London saying that the only way for Syria to avert an imminent US military strike was to turn its chemical weapons over to international control. Lavrov said Russia was prepared to pressure Syria to do so.
Lavrov quickly put the idea to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who was visiting Moscow, and a little over an hour after Kerry had made his comment, the Syrians had embraced what Muallem called a “Russian initiative” that could prevent “US aggression” against Syria.
Diplomacy moved rapidly after that. Debate on a resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons, which France brought before the UN Security Council, was due to begin later Wednesday.
In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama said he asked Congress to delay a planned vote on whether to authorize use of US military force in Syria while Kerry and Lavrov “pursue this diplomatic path” opened up by the Russian proposal.
Obama also said that “constructive talks” he had held with Russian President Vladimir Putin were at least partly responsible for the US shift from preparing to launch a limited strike on Syria to using diplomacy in an effort to remove the possibility for Assad’s regime to use chemical weapons in future.
Psaki said Obama and Putin first discussed how to remove the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons at the G-20 meeting in Mexico last year and have held further talks on the issue since then, including last week on the sidelines of the G-20 in St. Petersburg.
But Russia’s “willingness to be a facilitator” in getting Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stocks “increased significantly since the attack of August 21st” and increased even more when the United States threatened to use military force against Syria, she said.
Obama said in his speech Tuesday that US forces will maintain their “current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”
Russia has signaled that it wants the US threat of military force against Syria to be taken out of the equation, something analysts said could prove to be a sticking point in Geneva, and two Russian lawmakers said Moscow should send new “defensive weapons” to Iran should the US attack Syria.
Another potential complication in Geneva, experts said, could be figuring out how to ensure the safety of outside experts who could be sent into Syria in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people to verify and safeguard what is said to be one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world.
“That will be part of the discussion” in Geneva, Psaki said.
“If this was a simple step without pros and cons, it would have been done long ago. But I’m sure the safety of anyone involved will be part of the discussion,” she said.