Middle East

Syria crisis: Tense US-Russia talks on chemicals deal

The Russian and US foreign ministers have begun crucial talks in Geneva on a plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry said they hoped the plan could avoid military action against Syria.

The UN has confirmed it has received documents from Syria on joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, a key step in the Russian plan.

Syria's president said it would submit arms data one month after signing.

The US accuses the Syrian government of killing hundreds of people in a chemical attack in the Ghouta area of the capital, Damascus, on 21 August. The government denies the allegation, blaming rebels.

Russia announced its proposal for dealing with the escalating chemical weapons crisis on Monday, as the US Congress was preparing to debate whether to back President Barack Obama's moves towards military strikes.

'Doable but difficult'

In a news conference ahead of a working dinner in Geneva, Foreign Minister Lavrov said the resolution of the chemical weapons issue in Syria would make any military strike by the United States unnecessary.

He said there had to be a move away from military confrontation, and that successful talks could lead to a "Geneva 2" meeting.

Secretary of State Kerry said that only the threat of force had spurred Syria to accept relinquishing its chemical weapons, but that he hoped diplomacy could prevent military action.

He said the expectations for the meeting were high - particularly for Russia.

Mr Kerry said: "This is not a game. It has to be real, it has to be comprehensive, it has to be verifiable, it has to be credible, it has to be... implemented in a timely fashion. Finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."

He added: "President Obama has made clear that should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary."

The Syrians' use of the phrase "standard practice" in supplying information to the UN appeared to irk Mr Kerry.

"There is nothing standard about this process at this moment because of the way the regime has behaved," he said.

Mr Lavrov appeared to admonish Mr Kerry for making a political address, saying: "Diplomacy likes silence". Mr Kerry failed to hear the translation of Mr Lavrov's final words and asked to hear them again.

Mr Lavrov said in English, "It's OK, John", only for Mr Kerry to say, smiling: "You want me to take your word for it - it's a little early for that."

The BBC's James Robbins in Geneva says these are critical talks, aimed at breaking two-and-a-half years of deadlock over Syria.

Our correspondent says the American and Russian teams are unusually large - packed with weapons experts as well as diplomats.

He says the idea is that detailed talks on the practicalities of chemical disarmament will run in parallel with the hard political graft between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov - but it is expected to be a lengthy process, as each side tests the other hard to see if they really can find common ground.

US officials had earlier described Russia's plan as "doable but difficult".

Mr Lavrov also gave an outline of the three main phases of the proposal:

  • Syria joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production and use of the weapons
  • Syria reveals where its chemical weapons are stored and gives details of its programme
  • Experts decide on the specific measures to be taken

Before meeting Mr Lavrov, Mr Kerry held talks with the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The meeting with Mr Lavrov - described by US officials as comprehensive - lasted an hour and was followed by a private dinner.

The US and Russian teams will meet again on Friday morning.

'Not unilateral'

President Bashar al-Assad earlier appeared on Russian TV to confirm that his country's chemical weapons would be placed under international control but insisted that "US threats did not influence the decision".

In his interview, Mr Assad told state-run Rossiya 24 that Syria was sending relevant documents to the UN as part of the process of signing the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria's UN envoy Bashar Jaafari later said that "legally speaking", Syria was now a full member of the convention.

However, a UK spokesman at the UN said: "The procedures of the Chemical Weapons Convention assume a good faith and a commitment on the part of the acceding state which simply cannot be extended to Syria immediately after it has used chemical weapons against its own people."

Mr Assad said that Russia's proposal was "not unilateral", adding: "Syria will accept it if America stops military threats and if other countries supplying the rebels with chemical weapons also abide by the agreement."

The main Syrian armed rebel group has already refused to co-operate on the plan.

Gen Salim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army said he categorically rejected it, and insisted that the most important thing was to punish the perpetrators of chemical attacks.

If the talks in Geneva are successful, the US hopes the disarmament process will be agreed in a UN Security Council resolution.

However, Russia regards as unacceptable any resolution backed by military force, or a resolution that blames the Syrian government for chemical attacks.

Moscow has already objected to a draft resolution that would be enforced by Chapter VII of the UN charter, which would in effect sanction the use of force if Syria failed in its obligations.

Russia, supported by China, has blocked three previous draft resolutions condemning the Assad government.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.