The Cable

Kerry and Assad Shadowbox as Chemical Weapons Talks Kick Off

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."

The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Report Will Point to Assad Regime in Massive Chemical Attack

U.N. inspectors have collected a "wealth" of evidence on the use of nerve agents that points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people, according to a senior Western official.

The inspection team, which is expected on Monday to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with a highly anticipated report on a suspected Aug. 21 nerve agent attack in the suburbs of Damascus, will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case -- based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples -- that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.

"I know they have gotten very rich samples -- biomedical and environmental -- and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got." The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, "You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author."

The U.N. team, which is led by the Swedish scientist Ake Sellström, traveled to Damascus last month to begin an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons. During that trip, according to the United States and other Western powers, Syrian forces launched a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the al Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

A montage of video clips posted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on her Twitter page depicted horrific scenes of purported victims writhing in agony, and gasping for breath. Rows of dead children, their faces blue from apparent suffocation, were lined up in morbid rows, white sheets covering their tiny bodies.

Syria and Russia have denied that the government in Damascus carried out the attack, saying it was the work of Syrian rebels seeking to persuade the West to intervene militarily on their behalf. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Assad denied his government used chemical weapons -- and compared the U.S. case against Syria to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's flawed presentation against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In Syria, Assad said, "the Russians have completely opposite evidence: that missiles [were] thrown from areas that the rebels controlled."

Syria and Russia, meanwhile, have highlighted several other alleged chemical weapons attacks that wound up hitting Syrian forces. The Syrian government initially invited U.N. inspectors to Syria to investigate an alleged March 19 sarin attack in the town of Khan al Assal, near Aleppo. While the inspectors were in Damascus, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al Jaafari, requested that investigators look at three other cases of alleged chemical weapons use in late August against Syrian forces. On their final day in Damascus, the U.N. inspection team visited a military hospital in Damascus to examine alleged chemical weapons victims.

Diplomats say that Sellström's inspection team is only planning to report next week on the al Ghouta attacks. The team plans to return to Damascus at a later date to complete its investigations into the other incidents, including the March incident at Khan al Assal.

Under the terms of its mandate, however, the U.N. inspectors are only authorized to conclude whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not assign responsibility for their use.

While Western diplomats say they are confident that U.N. report would strengthen the case against the Syrian government, they said they expected the case would not fundamentally alter the course of diplomatic efforts to contain the chemical weapons threat in Syria. "It's not a game changer," said one diplomat.

On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, admitted his country operated a clandestine chemical weapons program, and vowed to open them up to international scrutiny as part of a Russian-brokered deal to place Syria's chemical agents under international control. "We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations," Moallem said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, headed to Geneva to see if they could reach agreement on a plan to control and ultimately destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Secretary-General Ban, for his part, appeared to be moving beyond the Sellström investigation. "I have not yet received the report from Dr. Sellström, nor do I know what it will contain," Ban told reporters Monday. But "I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Reuters