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U.S., Russia start Syria talks

U.N. separately working on resolution

WASHINGTON – The United States and Russia on Wednesday began swapping ideas on how to contain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in preparation for high-level talks slated to begin today in Geneva, in the latest whirlwind of diplomacy to stave off U.S. missile strikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, are scheduled to hold at least two days of meetings to discuss the logistics of a Moscow-generated proposal that would see Assad relinquishing his chemical arsenal to international authorities. Kerry and Lavrov each will be accompanied by a team of weapons experts to hash out the feasibility of such an undertaking in the midst of a vicious civil war.

The broader U.S. goal – a binding United Nations Security Council resolution spelling out the terms of such an agreement – is under discussion separately by diplomats in New York, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Those talks are said to be contentious already, with dueling French and Russian demands over language related to the threat of military action if the Assad regime fails to comply.

France’s draft proposal gives Syria 15 days to disclose its chemical stockpiles or face reprisals under a chapter of the U.N. charter that makes resolutions binding and enforceable by military action. Russia, which already has blocked three previous attempts to pass resolutions to pressure Assad, has rejected such language.

At the State Department, Psaki said the Obama administration was entering the talks with “eyes wide open” and wasn’t “predicting victory.” She was grilled about the administration’s newfound faith in the Russians, which comes just days after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., warned that it was “naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position” about pressuring Assad at the Security Council.

“Let me first say that details matter. We’re not predetermining or pre-suggesting that we’re going to approve of whatever proposal we talk through over the next few days. It has to be credible, and it has to be verifiable,” Psaki said. “Our end goal here has been multifaceted. One of them has been securing and removing chemical weapons, and this is the best opportunity we’ve had over the past few years.”

The Obama administration’s abrupt shift from attack mode to the negotiating table has received mixed reviews among close observers of the Syrian conflict.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the chief proponents of U.S. military action against Assad, complained Wednesday that Obama failed to mention helping the Syrian opposition in the speech he gave Tuesday night.

Najib Ghadbian, the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s envoy to the United States, said his group still wanted the Assad government held responsible for an alleged chemical attack Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs.

Other skeptics of the Russian proposal’s viability point to the extreme difficulties associated with inspecting and transporting huge stockpiles of sensitive materials in a war zone.