U.S. And Russia Hammer Out Plan For Syria's Chemical Weapons

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov resume meetings in Geneva on Friday. The talks are aimed at working out the details of a program in which Syria's Bashar Assad would give up his chemical weapons.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Few U.S. officials have had a tougher couple weeks than Secretary of State John Kerry. Late last month, he made a powerful case for striking Syria, only to have his boss throw the issue to Congress. Later, he made an offhand remark about negotiating a way out of the crisis, only to have Russia and Syria take it seriously. Now he's in Geneva, Switzerland, trying to complete that deal.

If he can reach an accommodation with Russia's foreign minister, the agreement would call for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world.

INSKEEP: You notice he said beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons. Of course, that's only part of the problem, here, and more of it may be addressed soon. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is at the talks today in Geneva.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you seen and heard?

KELEMEN: Well, their aides on both sides continue today hashing out details on how to gain control over Syria's chemical weapons, while Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went over to the U.N. to meet with Lakhdar Brahimi. Now, he's the diplomat who's been trying to bring Syria's warring factions to the negotiating table. Lavrov says there are going to be more talks on this track on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month, and they're hoping to pick a date soon for this peace conference.

Kerry, whose job it is to get rebels to agree to come to the table, says a lot's going to depend on progress on the chemical weapons issue. You know, the Syrian opposition is very skeptical about this issue, and certainly in no mood to negotiate with a government that's blamed for a deadly gas attack.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just remember there are multiple issues, here. There's chemical weapons, but in theory, at least, Syria could agree to give up its chemical weapons while a civil war is still going on. The question is how that gets resolved.

KELEMEN: That's right. And Syria now says that it's joining the Chemical Weapons Convention. It's asking for a month to send the data on its chemical stockpiles. That's normal procedure. Kerry wants to move that along much faster. He said there's nothing standard about this, and, you know, these are just some of the thorny issues that the U.S. and Russia are going to have to work out in the next hours.

INSKEEP: And there have been signs of that thorniness, haven't there, in some of these public appearances. One yesterday didn't go so well.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the opening remarks, Secretary Kerry got up there and challenged the Russians to really say that this is a test of their credibility, in a way. And there's also a big disagreement over accountability. You know, the U.S. says it's clear that Bashar al-Assad's forces gassed civilians on August 21st. Lavrov seemed quite annoyed at that, and about Kerry's whole speech at the opening of these talks in Geneva. Russia, you know, has blamed the rebels for carrying out the gas attack. And Lavrov made clear that he doesn't think this is the time for extensive political statements. He said diplomacy likes silence.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm wondering if there is an agreement that can be reached in that silence. Everybody, in principal, says they like the idea of Syria giving up chemical weapons, but the Syrian government is saying you also have to sell out the Syrian rebels and stop supporting them. There's this question of who's really responsible. Is there the basis for a deal, if the details can be agreed on?

KELEMEN: It's interesting. You know, when Kerry first talked about this on Monday in London, he told reporters that the only way that Syria can avert a U.S. military strike would be to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles in a week. He said he was speaking hypothetically at the time. And at the time, he said it was impossible. Now, as all these experts are here hammering out this issue, he and other U.S. officials say they do think there's a way to get this done. Obviously, though, there's immense technical challenges of doing this, as you said, in the case of a civil war.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

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