US-Russia Syria Weapons Talks Reach Critical Stage


GENEVA - Negotiations between the United States and Russia on securing Syria's chemical weapons have reached a critical turning point after two days of intense diplomacy, with a deal key to a resumption of peace talks hanging in the balance.

After lasting late into Friday night, discussions entered a third day on Saturday with U.S. officials pointing to at least limited progress on some elements of a Russian proposal to inventory, isolate and eventually destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks.

Saturday's session in Geneva, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, comes as the Obama administration warned that there is a timetable for a diplomatic resolution of the weapons issue.

They are at a "pivotal point," a U.S. official said Friday. Progress was made on how to account for Syria's chemical weapons inventory, the official said, adding that the U.S. and Russia had narrowed their differences over what each country believes to be the size of the Syrian stockpiles.

Administration officials also said that President Barack Obama was open to a U.N. Security Council resolution that did not include military force as a punishment if Syrian President Bashar Assad doesn't follow through on promises regarding the weapons. While Russia would be all but certain to veto any measure with such a penalty, Obama's willingness to concede the point was likely to be viewed as a step forward.

Still, the administration officials said, Obama would retain the authority to order U.S. airstrikes against Syria. Obama himself said that any agreement to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile "needs to be verifiable and enforceable."

After meeting Friday with the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, Obama said the U.S. and Kuwait are agreed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was "a criminal act."

"It is absolutely important for the international community to respond in not only deterring repeated use of chemical weapons but hopefully getting those chemical weapons outside of Syria," Obama said.

The U.S. will know within a few weeks whether a diplomatic path is workable, administration officials said as they suggested a time limit for the effort. The U.S. and administration officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations publicly.

U.N. inspectors prepared to turn in their own poison gas report this weekend. Two U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the time was not yet final, said Friday night that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was expected to brief the Security Council about the report on Monday morning.

Ban said Friday that he expected "an overwhelming report" that chemical weapons were indeed used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. Obama called for a limited military strike against Assad's forces in response, then deferred seeking congressional approval to consider the Russian proposal.

Kerry and Lavrov met Friday with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi about the potential for a new peace conference in the Swiss city. Kerry said he, Lavrov and Brahimi agreed to meet around Sept. 28 on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York.

"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," Kerry said.

Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told reporters after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva will require success first with the chemical weapons talks, which he said had been "constructive" so far.

Kerry planned to travel to Jerusalem Sunday to discuss the situation in Syria with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will then go to Paris to see French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday about the Syrian war. In Paris, he will meet separately with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.


Associated Press writers John Heilprin in Geneva and Maria Sanminiatelli in New York contributed to this report.

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