GENEVA — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and a team of U.S. arms control experts began talks with Russian counterparts Thursday on a plan to secure and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons, and he set an early test for Syria’s top leader by insisting on quick disclosure of all data on the Syrian arsenal.
In a joint appearance before their talks Thursday evening, Kerry and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told reporters they were serious about pursuing a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis provoked by the apparent use of those munitions in a mass killing last month in a Damascus suburb.
The United States has blamed President Bashar Assad of Syria for that attack but has delayed a punitive military strike following the disposal plan put forward by Russia, the Syrian government’s most important backer. Russia has defended Assad, suggested that the rebels seeking to topple him were responsible, and warned that a U.S. military strike would only create more instability in the Middle East.
“Expectations are high,” Kerry said. “They’re high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia, to deliver on the promise of this moment.”
The meeting began hours after Assad announced for the first time that he had endorsed the Russian disposal plan and had formally applied for Syrian membership in the chemical weapons treaty, which gives him 30 days to declare his stockpiles of banned munitions for sequestering and destruction under international supervision.
But Kerry said that the standard procedures were too slow because Assad’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people.
“There is nothing standard about this process,” Kerry said. “The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough.”
With a tableau of American and Russian flags behind them, Kerry and Lavrov stood side by side in a public show of joint purpose. But differences quickly reemerged. Lavrov stressed that the “solution of this problem will remove any need for a strike.”
Kerry emphasized 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.”