WASHINGTON — President Obama will not insist on a UN Security Council resolution threatening Syria with military action, senior administration officials said Friday, as US and Russian negotiators meeting in Geneva moved closer to an agreement that would seek to ultimately strip Syria of its chemical weapons.
After a second day of marathon talks in Geneva between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia, both sides expressed optimism, while US officials said they would give the process a couple weeks to see if it gained traction. But daunting obstacles remain to dismantling Syria’s vast chemical arsenal as negotiators try to defuse a confrontation that has inflamed politics on three continents.
A significant sign of movement at the United Nations came when the Obama administration effectively took force off the table in discussions over the shape of a Security Council resolution governing any deal with Syria. Although Obama reserved the right to order a US military strike without UN backing if Syria reneges on its commitments, senior officials said the president understood that Russia would never allow a Security Council resolution authorizing force.
As a strategic matter, that statement simply acknowledged the reality on the Security Council, where Russia wields a veto and has vowed to block any military action against Syria, its ally. But Obama’s decision to concede that point early in the talks underscored his desire to forge a workable diplomatic compromise and avoid a strike that would be deeply unpopular at home. It came just days after France, his strongest ally on Syria, proposed a resolution that included a threat of military action.
Instead, Obama will insist that any Security Council resolution build in other measures to enforce a deal with the government of President Bashar Assad, possibly including sanctions or other penalties, according to officials who requested anonymity in order to discuss negotiations candidly.
The president would not agree to Syria’s demand to renounce any use of force, said the officials, who argued that it was the threat of force that brought Moscow and Damascus to the negotiating table.
The administration was encouraged by the talks in Geneva. Officials said the Russians seemed serious enough that they might not be simply trying to disrupt the possibility of a military strike, but the officials added that there was no guarantee they could resolve significant disagreements on any eventual deal.
In Geneva, a senior administration official said the two sides had moved closer to consensus on the size of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, an essential prerequisite to any joint plan to control and dismantle it.
Russian officials arrived in Geneva with a substantially lower assessment of the arsenal’s size than the 1,000 tons Kerry had cited. But two days of talks between Russian and American arms control experts, including an intelligence briefing by the US side, came closer to producing a common understanding about “where it is, what it is, and how to track it,” the administration official said.
Obama expressed cautious optimism Friday after a meeting with the visiting emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. “I shared with the emir my hope that the negotiations that are currently taking place between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Geneva bear fruit,” the president said. “But I repeated what I’ve said publicly, which is that any agreement needs to be verifiable and enforceable.”
The administration has not laid out publicly how that might be achieved, and officials on Friday left open the possibility that there may be an acceptable alternative to a Security Council resolution, although they did not go into specifics. Verification, they said, cannot simply be a vague commitment but must be a concrete process.
Administration officials flatly rejected Russian and Syrian demands that the United States forswear all possible military action. And while they expressed wariness about a negotiating process that drags on, they said talks serve as a deterrent on their own because Assad presumably would not use chemical weapons in the interim.
The two sides also made progress on how Syria might work with the international organization that oversees compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria has agreed to sign. US officials declined to say how quickly Syria would be required to turn over data on its chemical weapons, but Kerry has made clear it must be faster than the 60 days allowed by the convention.
Kerry and Lavrov worked late into the night, holding an hourlong meeting that ended at midnight. The senior administration official said the two sides were at a “pivotal point” in the talks.”
The confrontation stems from an Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs that, according to American intelligence, killed more than 1,400 people. The United States and dozens of other countries have concluded that Assad’s government was responsible, but Syria and Russia deny that.