Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei… (Philippe Desmazes / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart huddled Thursday in Geneva in a push to disarm Syria of chemical weapons, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad warned that he wouldn't surrender his toxic arsenal unless the Obama administration stopped arming rebels battling to overthrow his government.
Assad's comments suggested another hurdle for the hastily arranged talks, which were already fraught with considerable risk, and threatened a separate diplomatic process at the United Nations. They underscored the limits of Moscow's leverage over the embattled Syrian ruler, who faces a mortal threat from insurgents in a bitter civil war.
Neither Kerry nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov directly responded to Assad's demands when they met with reporters. Both sought to project optimism about resolving the crisis that erupted after the U.S. said that more than 1,000 Syrians were killed in poison gas attacks outside Damascus last month.
"We do believe there is a way to get this done," Kerry said. But he repeated President Obama's warning that if diplomacy failed, "force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons."
"We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary" any U.S. airstrikes on Syria, Lavrov said.
Both diplomats brought teams of arms control experts, legal specialists and other aides to the talks, which are taking place in the Swiss city where the first ban on poison gas was signed nearly a century ago after the horrors of World War I.
In brief comments at the White House, Obama said he hoped the negotiations "can yield a concrete result." He said Kerry would work hard "over the next several days to see what the possibilities are."
The talks represent Moscow's attempt to reclaim a dominant position on the world stage after years of decline, and have cast Russian President Vladimir Putin in the unlikely role of peacemaker. He vowed this week to force Assad's government to let international monitors impound, safeguard and ultimately destroy Syria's chemical weapons.
After weeks of insisting that America's credibility was on the line in Syria, and months of tension and chilly relations with Moscow, the White House sought Thursday to shift the spotlight — and at least some of the responsibility — to the Russian leader.
"It is clear that President Putin has invested his credibility in transferring Assad's chemical weapons to international control and ultimately destroying them," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "This is significant. Russia is Assad's patron and protector, and the world will note whether Russia can follow through on the commitments that it's made."
Kerry and Lavrov have met nearly a dozen times this year, and Kerry has called Russia a crucial partner in trying to end the Syrian conflict and resolve the chemical weapons crisis. But U.S. officials worry that Putin is simply trying to avert U.S. airstrikes and buy time for his ally in Damascus.
Many diplomats and analysts say the Obama administration holds a weak hand in the talks. On Tuesday, Obama said he was withdrawing his request for Congress to authorize military action in Syria to give diplomacy time. But it was clear by then that the House, and perhaps the Senate, was unlikely to support the president's plea for use of force.
Christopher Chivvis, a Pentagon official during the first Obama term, said he viewed airstrikes without congressional support as "not impossible, but increasingly unlikely." He said the diplomatic efforts "could lead backward" if they unraveled in the weeks ahead and Obama refrained from retaliatory strikes.
"Then you're in a worse position, because Assad still has his weapons and the message to the world is that you can use them without punishment," said Chivvis, who is now with the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank.
In addition to the sit-down in Geneva, Syrian diplomats in New York gave U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a document declaring Syria's willingness to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans the production, storage or use of poison gas. Nearly 200 countries have already signed it.
The treaty, which went into force in 1997, would bring Syria's disarmament under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an independent international organization based in The Hague. It has no military enforcement powers and thus is dependent on each country's cooperation.
Both Russia and the United States, the two countries with the largest stockpiles of chemical arms, are still working to destroy their toxic arsenals under the treaty's provisions.