GENEVA — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his team opened two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts on Thursday, hoping to emerge with the outlines of a plan for the complex task of safely securing and destroying vast stockpiles of Syrian chemical weapons in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict.
President Barack Obama, meeting with his Cabinet in Washington, said he was hopeful the talks would produce "a concrete result," adding that Kerry "is going to be working very hard over the next several days to see what possibilities are there."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, held out the effort as "a new opportunity to avoid military action" by the U.S. against Syria.
"The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction," Putin wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Times.
Kerry will be testing the seriousness of the Russian proposal, and looking for rapid agreement on principles for how to proceed with the Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles, according to officials with the secretary of state.
The hastily arranged meetings in Geneva got under way as Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with Russia's Rossiya-24 TV, said his government will start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile a month after signing the convention banning such weapons. He called it the "standard process."
And even as diplomacy took center stage, word surfaced that the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following President Barack Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
Kerry, accompanied by American chemical weapons experts, met for about 45 minutes with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria and was later meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russian technical experts were joining Lavrov in the meetings.
One official said the U.S. hopes to know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as an opening position that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the focus as largely on "technical issues," avoiding any expression of suspicion about U.S. intention.
"Undoubtedly, it's necessary to make sure that Syria joins the convention on prohibition of chemical weapons, which would envisage Syria declaring the locations of its chemical weapons depots, its chemical weapons program," said Lavrov, who spoke at a briefing in Astana, Kazakhstan before heading to Geneva. "On that basis, the experts will determine what specific measures need to be taken to safeguard those depots and arsenals."
Lavrov added that he and Kerry should also discuss issues related to organizing a peace conference, the so-called Geneva-2. He added that specific preparations for the conference could start now if the West works to persuade the Syrian opposition to join them.
The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians on Syria's chemical weapons can be part of a binding new U.N. Security Council resolution being negotiated that demands that Syria's chemical weapons be put under international control and be dismantled and condemns the Aug. 21 attack. Russia, however, has long opposed U.N. action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
As for arming the Syrian rebels, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration could not "detail every single type of support that we are providing to the opposition or discuss timelines for delivery, but it's important to note that both the political and the military opposition are and will be receiving this assistance."
A senior U.S. intelligence official and two former intelligence officials said the CIA has arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry such as rocket-propelled grenades through a third party, presumably one of the Gulf countries that has been arming the rebels. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal first reported the lethal aid.
Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told The Associated press that they hadn't received any weapons from the United States although they expect that in the near future.
"We are cooperating with the American administration and have been receiving some logistical and technical assistance and there are commitments by the administration to arm us but until now we have not received any weapons," al-Mikdad said by telephone.
The officials said the aid has been arriving for more than a month, much of it delivered through a third party.
Putin's opinion piece in the Times drew a scornful reaction from House Speaker John Boehner, who said he was "insulted" by it without specifying exactly what bothered him. In the article, Putin chided Americans for seeing themselves as "exceptional." Putin also warned that a U.S. strike against Syria because of chemical weapons use could unleash new terrorist attacks. And Putin wrote there was "every reason to believe" the weapons were used by rebels and not by Assad's military.
The U.S. team in Geneva includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the sensitive negotiations, said the teams that eventually go into Syria to do the work would have to have an international mix, as would their security.
The meetings are taking place in the same hotel where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 gave Lavrov a symbolic "reset button," as a goodwill gesture and a reminder of the Obama administration's efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations.