Syria took the first formal step towards surrendering its chemical weapons on Thursday, sending the United Nations an application to join the international convention prohibiting the production and use of such arms.
The UN secretary general's office confirmed receipt of the letter, hours after the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, had admitted the existence of the arsenal for the first time, and said he was ready to transfer it to international control.
At the same time, talks between the US and Russia on how to implement the transfer got under way in Geneva. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that both sides were serious about the negotiations despite some differences over the plan. But he warned: "This is not a game. It has to be real."
With its letter to the UN, Syria was poised to become the the 190th member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), leaving a small group of nations outside the treaty: Israel, Burma, Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. Syrian membership will take effect 30 days after the delivery of the letter. After that Syria would be legally committed to ridding itself of its chemical arsenal.
However, in a Russian television interview, Assad also appeared to put conditions on Syria's chemical disarmament, saying the US would have to reciprocate by ceasing military threats against his government and the arming of "terrorists".
Assad's comments emphasised the significant diplomatic obstacles facing US and Russian diplomats and chemical weapons experts as they began meetings in Geneva to discuss Moscow's plan to disarm the Syrian government. According to the Russian Kommersant newspaper, the plan would involve four stages: Syria would sign the CWC, then declare its stockpile and production facilities, invite weapons inspectors in, and cooperate with them in drawing up a plan to destroy the stockpile.
That arsenal, according to a French intelligence estimate this month, amounts to more than 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and precursors, including mustard gas as well as sarin and VX nerve agents.
Speaking in Geneva, Kerry acknowledged that there would be "immense technical challenges" in implementing the plan. But he told Lavrov: "We are serious, as you are, about engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations." He repeated Washington's position that there had to be "consequences" if Syria failed to follow through on its commitments and said that US military assets would remain in place.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times on Wednesday night, Russian president Vladimir Putin restated Moscow's claim that the chemical attacks in Damascus on 21 August which triggered the current global crisis were the work of rebel forces, but he did not cite evidence.
A UN investigation into the attack is expected to produce a report early next week. The Foreign Policy online magazine quoted a senior western official as saying the report, by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, would include a "wealth" of evidence pointing at the culpability of the Assad regime. American officials said that they would insist on a brisk timetable to ensure the plan did not become a time-buying ploy.
While the diplomats talked in Geneva, the US and Russia continued to build up their naval forces in the Mediterranean. Russia has dispatched a "carrier killer" missile cruiser and other ships to the eastern Mediterranean, in its largest naval deployment since Soviet times.
The destroyer Smetlivy left a naval base in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Tuesday, on a mission to the Syrian coast, a military source told the state news agency Interfax on Thursday. The source said the Smetlivy would travel to the Mediterranean with the amphibious assault ship Nikolai Filchenkov, which left Novorossiysk on Monday carrying unidentified supplies for the Damascus government. The missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, is also on its way to the Syrian coast to lead the Russian force there. The ship is reportedly known as a "carrier-killer" because it is outfitted with Vulkan missiles, which are designed to destroy large ships.
The former Democratic US senator Sam Nunn, who is one of the world's leading arms-control campaigners, said the disarmament process would have a chance of succeeding only if the Syrian army is in charge of the arsenal.
"We hope that the Syrian army is in control. The US government believes it is. The Russians disagree. If the Russians are right and some of the rebels have control, the nightmare's just started," said Nunn, speaking to The Guardian in Brussels.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Syria takes step to surrender chemical weapons as US keeps up pressure
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