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Kerry demands fast accounting of Syrian arms

Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed Syria’s offer to join the international chemical weapons treaty on Thursday.

Larry Downing/AP

Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed Syria’s offer to join the international chemical weapons treaty on Thursday.

GENEVA — Secretary of State John Kerry set an early test for Syria’s president on Thursday by insisting on quick disclosure of data on that country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

Kerry’s demand came as he began talks with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on a plan to secure and dispose of Syria’s poison gas.

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Earlier Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced publicly that his country had formally applied to join the chemical weapons treaty. According to the treaty’s terms, Syria would be required to submit a declaration detailing the types, quantities, and locations of all its chemical weapons and the locations of all facilities for producing them within 60 days of formally joining the accord.

But Kerry said that the normal procedures were far too slow because Assad’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people.

“There is nothing standard about this process because of the way the regime has behaved,” Kerry said. “The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough.”

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A spokeswoman for Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, made a similar point in a statement.

“Syria needs to take immediate actions to disclose, surrender, and eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile under international monitoring and verification,” the spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, said. “Statements without action are wholly insufficient for a country that has had a secret, enormous chemical weapons program for decades.”

Kerry and Lavrov stood side by side in a public show of joint purpose. But differences quickly reemerged, as Lavrov stressed that the “solution of this problem will remove any need for a strike.”

Kerry said that “only the credible threat of force” had prompted Assad to acknowledge that his nation possessed chemical weapons in the first place, and that a military option was needed to ensure that Assad fulfilled his promises.

At the end of their presentations, Lavrov seemed surprised by the length and tone of Kerry’s statement.

“I’m not prepared with the extended political statement,” Lavrov said. “Diplomacy likes silence.”

At the end of their appearance, Kerry said that he had not heard some of Lavrov’s remarks, and asked that the interpreter repeat them.

Turning to Kerry, Lavrov joked in English that that was not necessary.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

“You want me to take your word for it?” Kerry said with a smile. “It is a little early for that.”

The two men then left to meet together along with their teams of arms control experts. The American and Russian officials were to meet again Friday and probably Saturday.

Kerry and Lavrov met at the same Geneva hotel where Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, presented Lavrov with a red “reset” button in 2009 to symbolize the efforts of the administration of President Obama to improve ties with Moscow. It was an effort that has been largely stymied since Vladimir Putin resumed his role as Russia’s president.

American officials say they hope Kerry and Lavrov can work out an effective plan, but they are wary of the United States being drawn into prolonged talks that would serve as a tactic to delay, and perhaps prevent, an American-led military strike. One test will be the willingness of Russia and Syria to accept a rapid beginning to international control that would preclude the Assad government from gaining access to chemical weapons or using them, a senior State Department official said.

Coming up with a verifiable plan to inspect, control, and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons during a civil war is a daunting task. Though Obama administration officials have said the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons has been discussed with the Russians for more than a year, the sides have not talked about it in detail.

For example, the United States and Russia have yet to compare intelligence on the quantities of Syria’s chemical stocks, their main elements, and their locations. American officials have declassified intelligence reports and plan to begin that process here.

“What we will be looking at is the chemical weapons stockpiles, the production facilities, precursor chemicals,” the State Department official said. “And to the extent that there are munitions that are used to spread those chemical weapons in whatever manner, that obviously is part of dismantling and destroying the chemical weapons that Assad has.”

A major concern is how to conduct inspections safely in the middle of a civil war.

Gary Samore, the senior aide on nonproliferation issues at the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, said that the Assad government would be reluctant to give up its entire arsenal because it valued poison gas as a deterrent against Israel and as a weapon to use against Syrian rebels.

“What Assad might make is a partial declaration of the chemical weapons he is willing to put under international control and keep a significant portion in his back pocket,” said Samore, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.

But Obama’s decision to delay any military action and explore a disarmament plan with the Russians, who have been a main supplier of arms to the Assad government, has distressed much of the Syrian opposition and raised questions about whether the rebels would even take part in such a peace conference.

“They’re upset,” a senior State Department official said. “They don’t trust this at all.”

In a recent statement, General Salim Idris, the head of the military wing of the Syrian opposition, rejected the Russian initiative and said the Syrians who carried out the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus that started the current crisis must be punished.

In an effort to address the opposition’s fears, Kerry spoke Thursday with Idris and Ahmad al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian opposition, and sought to assure them that the military option remained on the table, and that the Obama administration would insist that any understanding about Syria’s chemical weapons be verifiable and enforceable, a State Department official said.

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