As high-stakes talks between Russia and the United States on Syria's chemical weapons program kicked off Thursday, Damascus began taking steps to formally give up its stockpile of deadly agents. But the positive development coincided with a sinking realization among U.S. officials that Syria's application to the Chemical Weapons Convention offers President Bashar al-Assad a range of opportunities to delay the removal of the unconventional arms from his country.
In a joint appearance with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry immediately warned Assad that delays on his part would invite a U.S. military strike. "This is not a game," said Kerry. "Expectations are high. They are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia, to deliver on the promise of this moment."
But a number of diplomatic obstacles immediately presented themselves. In an interview with Russian state TV. Assad said he would only give up his chemical weapons after the U.S. stops arming the rebels and threatening a military attack -- a demand no one seriously believes the U.S. will acquiesce to. "When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalised," Assad noted. Additionally, Assad said joining the convention allotted him 30 days to hand over information on its stockpiles, a time frame Kerry immediately rejected.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged that any deal to remove Assad's chemical weapons would be a "very complicated process and it will take time." (Experts say removing chemical weapons from Syria could take more than 10 years.) Harf said in order for the U.S. to remain at the negotiating table, "we have to keep seeing forward momentum" from the Syrians on a range of compliance issues. It's not clear what would qualify as "forward momentum," but as the two-day talks in Geneva kick off, the United Nations has said it received documents from Syria on joining the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty.
Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled with America's shift toward diplomacy. The Syrian opposition is warning U.S. officials that accepting Assad's offer would amount to tacit approval of the slaughter of Syrians by conventional means only. "We fear that the international community will fall for this trap," George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Cable.
In another attempt to cast further doubt on Assad's intentions, the head of the opposition Free Syrian Army told CNN on Thursday that he has intelligence showing that the Assad regime is moving its chemical weapons outside Syrian borders. "Today, we have information that the regime began to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and to Iraq," Gen. Salim Idriss said. However, Israeli and Iraqi officials have pushed back against the claim, saying they have seen no evidence of such weapons transfers.
Meanwhile, as the Obama administration's publicity campaign in support of a U.S. strike on Syria cools off, administration officials are no longer broadcasting a uniform message on the importance of military intervention. During a speech in Washington on Thursday, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency characterized the decision to intervene as "an extremely difficult choice" that risked entangling the U.S. into an "extremely complicated Middle Eastern Crisis," said Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. "A ‘damned if we do, damned if we don't' dilemma."