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Syria: A Chemical Crime, A Complex Reaction

Syria: A Chemical Crime, A Complex Reaction

President Bashar al-Assad’s battle against a popular insurgency has killed 100,000 people and displaced more than six million.

A SURPRISE

At the G20 events took an unexpected turn. During a break in a morning session, Putin approached Obama. They moved to a corner of the room where they pulled chairs together and spoke for about 30 minutes while other leaders looked on. “It was not acrimonious” but neither was it especially productive, one senior U.S. official said on the flight home. But the two leaders, as Putin later confirmed, had discussed “placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.”

On Sept. 9, in a London press conference, Secretary of State Kerry noted that Assad might avoid an attack if he surrendered his chemical weapons to international inspectors. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting,” Kerry said. The State Department quickly sought to downplay the statement, describing it as an off-hand “rhetorical argument.”

Hours later, though, Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov from his plane. Lavrov noted Kerry’s remarks in London and said Russia would be willing to engage in the idea of Syria surrendering its chemical weapons. Kerry denied that it was a formal suggestion and said he remained sceptical of anything working out; but he promised to look at a serious proposal.

U.S. officials gave the impression that they believed the offer was a political ploy on Putin’s part to avert military action. Later, though, some Obama aides said the idea of Assad surrendering his chemical stockpile had been discussed by Obama and Putin both at their talks at the G20 in Mexico last year and again in their private chat in St. Petersburg.

Soon afterwards, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak, met Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 State Department official, and handed her a two-page document containing ideas on how to implement the initiative, a senior State Department official said. At that point, “no one had a full-blown plan, no one,” the official said.

Kerry called Lavrov again on Sept. 10 and suggested the two men and their teams meet in Geneva. The White House was furious when a French draft resolution on chemical weapons inspections appeared later that same day. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius wanted a resolution that could lead to the use of force, lay blame on Assad and include a line that those who committed the Aug. 21 attack would be brought to justice. U.S. officials fumed that France was trying to look like it was driving events.

Though Obama told Hollande he backed the French resolution, Kerry called Fabius and asked him what he was playing at by putting a resolution forward.

French officials, for their part, were annoyed that they had not been invited to Geneva. They feared the Americans might accept a weak resolution just to avoid strikes. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Reuters after talks with Kerry that he sensed the White House was looking for a way out of military action “to get the responsibility off their back.”

BACK TO GENEVA

The Americans prepared intensively for negotiations in Geneva. Kerry carried an intelligence presentation, cleared for sharing with Russia, that detailed U.S. estimates of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and infrastructure: 1,000 tonnes of weapons and agents, and at least 45 research, production and mixing sites, U.S. officials said.

The State Department also asked the U.S. military’s Central Command to prepare a brief paper outlining the challenge of securing the chemicals and the sites, said a senior U.S. official.

U.S. officials were heartened to learn that Lavrov had brought with him a large team of chemical weapons specialists, and intelligence and legal experts, indicating that Moscow was ready to get down to work. “They brought the people who really know the substance of this. So that was an early positive indication,” the senior State Department official said.

The teams met at Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel, which is famous for historic diplomatic encounters. Among the biggest differences was the huge gap in estimates of the size of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The Russians, U.S. officials say, eventually moved to the American position.

At several points on Sept. 13, rumours spread through the press corps that the Russians planned to wrap the talks up that day, and leave. Lavrov did leave the hotel twice – to take phone calls from Putin, at Russia’s diplomatic mission nearby.

The talks continued through the night and into Saturday morning.

At one point, negotiators discussed how to destroy at least part of Syria’s binary chemical weapons – in which two non-lethal ingredients are mixed to produce poison gas – without moving them out of Syria. Someone suggested one of the ingredients, alcohol, could be dumped in the Syrian desert, a U.S. official said.

“We Russians don’t pour alcohol out in the desert,” Lavrov dead-panned.

According to a senior U.S. official, American negotiators wrote most of the draft deal. In diplomatic parlance, the Americans “had the pen.” A senior Russian diplomat disagrees: “We all held the pen together. Our experts and the American experts really worked like one team. Lavrov and Kerry barely ever separated throughout those three days.”

Agreement was reached at a teak table next to the hotel swimming pool, where Kerry, Lavrov, and two aides huddled. Once done, Kerry and Lavrov shook hands and strolled along the pool deck, the U.S. official said.

On Sept. 14, the United States and Russia announced they had agreed to send a draft decision to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body that implements the 1997 convention aimed at ridding the world of chemical weapons. The decision set down “draft procedures for expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof.”

A U.N. Security Council resolution will enforce that move, including steps to ensure verification and effective implementation. All Syria’s chemical weapons material and equipment will be destroyed by the first half of 2014. “In the event of non-compliance, including unauthorised transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the U.N. Security Council should impose measures under chapter VII of the U.N. charter,” the agreement states. For now, the nature of those measures has been left undecided, like many of the details that could potentially trip the plan up. Washington says military action is still a possibility.

One European diplomat said Washington’s frequent diplomatic shifts might hurt it. France, said this non-French official, had been “treated like a useful idiot.”

Asked about his earlier remarks that Assad would never agree to give up his chemical weapons, Kerry conceded that, “I did indeed say it was impossible and he won’t do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and wanted him to do it. And the language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you put things to the test, and we did.”

Kerry and Lavrov had spoken by phone 11 times between the chemical attack in Syria and their meeting in Geneva last week. A deal, Kerry suggested, was always a possibility. “He talked to his president and they talked – our presidents talked in St. Petersburg, and the rest is history. We’re here.”

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