Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov give a joint press conference in Geneva following their meeting on Syria's chemical weapons, on September 12, 2013. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 12 said there was still "a chance for peace" in Syria as he prepared for high-stakes talks with his US counterpart on a plan for Damascus to give up its chemical weapons.
(Photo: LARRY DOWNING AFP/Getty Images)
As Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, began talks on the nuts and bolts of a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile on Thursday, Kerry suggested that U.S. patience with the proposal, aimed at heading off U.S. military action, was limited.
"Expectations are high," Kerry said in comments to reporters on Thursday after meeting with Lavrov in Geneva. "They are high for the United States, and perhaps even more so on the Russians to deliver on the promise of this moment. This is not a game, and I said this to my friend Sergey, when we talk about this initially."
Kerry, Lavrov and a group of technical experts are meeting Thursday and again on Friday to discuss the Russian proposal.
Kerry also rejected Syrian President Bashar Assad's suggestion in a television interview Thursday that he would begin submitting data on his chemical weapons arsenal one month after signing an international chemical weapons ban. Assad claimed the 30-day lead time would be standard.
"There is nothing standard about this process," Kerry said. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."
Kerry reiterated that President Obama could still order a U.S. military strike if the Russian proposal is unsuccessful and Assad doesn't dismantle his chemical weapons arsenal.
"There ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."
Meanwhile, Obama told reporters on Thursday ahead of a meeting with his Cabinet that he was "hopeful" that the talks would be fruitful but then quickly turned his attention to domestic matters.
"Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue and making sure that international attention is focused on the horrible tragedy that occurred there, it is still important to recognize that we've got a lot more stuff to do here in this government," said Obama, who noted looming deadlines to pass a budget, raise the debt ceiling and implement his signature health care legislation. "We got a lot of stuff to do."
The president's desire to keep expectations low for the talks is understandable. After the Russians floated the idea of taking a role in securing Syria's chemical weapons earlier this week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were highly skeptical of the Russians, who along with Iran are the Syrians' chief patrons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin added to Congressional doubts with comments he made in New York Times op-ed on Thursday.
Putin challenged the Obama administration's claim that Assad's regime was responsible for deploying the chemical weapons and took umbrage with Obama's pointing to American exceptionalism as a reason the USA should support a military strike if diplomatic efforts fail.
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed Putin's criticism of Obama talking about American exceptionalism in national address on Syria on Tuesday. Carney also called the Russian president's claim that rebels were responsible for deploying chemical weapons "wholly unsubstantiated" and said the Russians are "isolated and alone" in blaming the opposition for the Aug. 21 chemical attack that left more than 1,400 civilians dead.
"We are not surprised by President Putin's words, but the fact is that Russia offer stark contrast that demonstrates why America is exceptional," Carney said. "Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world. We believe our global security is advanced when children cannot be gassed to death by a dictator."
U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle - including the Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez-said they were insulted by Putin's commentary.
"I almost wanted to vomit," Menendez, D-N.J., told CNN. "I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests, and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is."