Obama, Putin previously discussed plan to secure Syria chemical arms

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U.S. and Russian officials confirmed Tuesday that they have had discussions about securing Syria’s chemical arms going back months, including in a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin at the G-20 summit last week, and that the idea was not born out of a stray comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a London press conference Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that he and President Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last week.

He and Obama agreed “to instruct Secretary of State [John Kerry] and Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] to get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward,” Putin told Russia Today in an interview Tuesday.

A US official confirmed this basic account Tuesday.

Obama and Putin, meeting in a corner for 20-30 minutes last Friday (Sept. 5), “agreed that a political solution is ultimately necessary to resolve the civil war, but we continue to have differences about Assad’s role in that transition,” a senior US administration official said Tuesday.  “However, they did agree that we could cooperate on the issue of chemical weapons – specifically, an effort to secure [chemical weapons] stockpiles, as both the US and Russia believe that they pose a significant danger, within Syria and beyond.”

“Putin broached the idea that had been discussed in previous meeting about reaching an international agreement to remove chemical weapons,” the US official said. “Obama agreed that could be an avenue for cooperation, and said that Kerry and Lavrov should follow up on the concept to shape a potential proposal. Putin agreed to relay that to Lavrov.”

Kerry, Lavrov and Putin earlier “spoke about this concept back in the spring, when Kerry first visited Moscow in April – at the time hooked to the notion that all shared an interest in avoiding collapse of the institutions of the state,” the U.S. official said.

In fact, Obama and Putin had discussed the concept at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico last year, and in subsequent meetings, “though agreement could not be reached,” the senior US official said.

Lavrov announced Monday that Russia was calling on Syria's leaders to turn over its chemical weapons to international custody, for subsequent destruction, and to sign the chemical weapons ban. Lavrov noted in his statement that the decision followed a telephone conversation he and Kerry had after Kerry was asked at a London news conference Monday if there is anything Syria could do to avert U.S. military action.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry responded. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Kerry's reference to a diplomatic option was immediately downplayed by State Department spokespeople as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and by another unnamed US official to CNN as a “goof.” But President Obama, in previously scheduled television interviews Monday, indicated that while he was skeptical of the plan, it represents “a potentially positive development,” and he was willing to “run this to the ground” to determine if it was a serious and feasible proposal, and not just a delaying tactic.

In both Kerry's and the “President's mind, it can be a win-win,” the U.S. official said Tuesday. “Either you succeed in coming up with a …means by which it happens quickly and verifiably; or you get to.. show that you exhausted another diplomatic route which adds legitimacy and brings more partners and more in Congress to your side.”

Kerry will meet with Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the option in detail, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Continue reading

Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'


President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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