US, Russia see Syria arms deal aiding peace talks

Reuters
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi (C) and …

By Stephanie Nebehay and Oliver Holmes

GENEVA/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia and the United States agreed on Friday to push again for an international conference aimed at ending Syria's civil war as talks on removing chemical weapons raised hopes for broader negotiations.

After a further meeting Geneva to discuss Moscow's plan for securing poison gas stocks in order to avert U.S. air strikes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said they would work together to end a conflict that has divided the Middle East and the world's major powers.

They would meet again in about two weeks, around September 28 during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and hoped progress in Geneva in the coming day on a chemical weapons disarmament deal would help set a date for a peace conference.

"We are committed to trying to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world," Kerry told a joint news briefing.

Washington and Moscow still had work to do find common ground, Kerry said of a dispute that has raised echoes of the Cold War and to reach an agreement on scheduling peace talks.

"Much ... will depend on the capacity to have success here in the next hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons," the secretary of state added.

Lavrov said work on a chemical weapons deal would go on in parallel with preparatory work for a Geneva peace conference.

Russia has resisted calls from Syrian rebels and Western leaders for President Bashar al-Assad to make way for an interim transitional government. Assad's disparate opponents and their foreign allies say they see no place for Assad after the war.

Kerry cautioned after meeting Lavrov on Thursday that the United States could still carry out a threat to attack Assad in retaliation for a poison gas attack last month if Washington was not satisfied with Syria's response.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who also represents the Arab League, met Kerry and Lavrov together on Friday. He said working to remove chemical weapons from Syria would form an important element in efforts to hold new peace talks, following an earlier failed attempt at Geneva last year.

FIGHTING IN DAMASCUS

As the diplomacy continued in Switzerland, Assad's forces were on the offensive against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, opposition activists and residents said. Warplanes and artillery were bombing and shelling, notably in the Barzeh neighbourhood, where activists said there were also clashes on the ground.

"It seems that the government is back to its old routine after the past couple of weeks of taking a defensive posture from a U.S. strike," said one resident of central Damascus, who opposes Assad. She heard jets overhead and artillery in action.

Damascus formally applied to join a global poison gas ban - a move welcomed on Friday by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called it "an important step towards the resolution of the Syrian crisis" and added: "This confirms the serious intention of our Syrian partners to follow this path."

China, too, hailed Assad's decision, as did Iran, Assad's key ally in a regional confrontation with sectarian overtones between Shi'ite Tehran and Sunni Muslim Arab states.

But Kerry has underscored that Washington could still attack: "This is not a game," he said on Thursday.

The talks were part of a diplomatic push that prompted President Barack Obama to put on hold his plans for U.S. air strikes in response to a chemical weapons attack on August 21. Moscow's proposal also spared Obama facing a vote in Congress on military action that he appeared likely to lose at this stage.

The United States and its allies say Assad's forces carried out the attack with sarin nerve gas, killing more than 1,400 people. Putin and Assad have blamed rebel forces.

The United Nations said it received a document from Syria on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty, a move Assad promised as part of a deal to avoid U.S. air strikes.

Assad told Russian state television in an interview broadcast on Thursday that he would finalise plans to abandon his chemical arsenal only when the United States stops threatening to attack him.

Lavrov said on Thursday: "We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic."

AL QAEDA THREAT

Along with other world powers, Moscow and Washington see the instability in Syria as fuelling wider security threats, but differ sharply on how to respond. Western powers say that Assad is a tyrant who should be overthrown. Russia, like Assad, highlights the presence in rebel ranks of Islamist militants.

In an audio recording released a day after the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri referred to Islamist fighters in Syria among other battlegrounds as he urged supporters to carry out attacks in the United States to "bleed America economically".

Putin's Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer during the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011, delivering arms and - with China - blocking three U.N. resolutions meant to pressure Assad.

Kerry said any agreement must be comprehensive, verifiable, credible and implemented in a "timely" way - "and finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place." Kerry called a peaceful resolution "clearly preferable" to military action.

Assad told Russian TV: "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 said Syria would provide an accounting of chemical weapons stocks in 30 days, standard practice under the treaty.

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