US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met for a second day in Geneva to work on Moscow’s disarmament proposal, although Washington remains sceptical, warning military action is still possible to punish the Assad regime for a poison gas attack in rebel territory last month.

Tom Miles and Oliver Holmes

GENEVA // Russia and the United States agreed yesterday to a new push to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war as they discussed a plan to destroy President Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons to avert US air strikes.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met for a second day in Geneva to work on Moscow’s disarmament proposal. Washington remains sceptical, warning military action is still possible to punish the Assad regime for a poison gas attack in rebel territory last month.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said yesterday he expected a UN report into the attack on the outskirts of Damascus to offer “overwhelming evidence” that chemical weapons were used. More than 1,400 people were killed in the attack, according to the US.

Syria applied to become a full member of the global anti-chemical weapons treaty on Thursday, the UN said, a step outlined in Russia’s proposal.

After meeting the UN envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, both Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov said progress on the arms issue in their talks could help relaunch their efforts to bring Syria’s warring sides together and negotiate an end to a conflict that has inflamed the Middle East and divided world powers since it began in 2011.

Mr Kerry told a joint news 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.”

He hoped a date might be set for peace talks, but added: “Much ... will depend on the capacity to have success ... on the subject of the chemical weapons.”

Talks with Mr Lavrov, which also involved US and Russian weapons experts, are expected to end today.

Mr Lavrov and Mr Kerry said they hoped to meet in New York in about two weeks during the UN General Assembly, to see if they could schedule a new international peace conference on Syria.

Russia has resisted calls from Syrian rebels and Arab and western leaders for Mr Al Assad to make way for an interim transitional government. Russian President Vladimir Putin, warning against what he calls western interference in sovereign states without UN backing, says outsiders should not impose a settlement.

Mr Putin yesterday welcomed Syria’s announcement that it had joined a global anti-chemical weapons treaty, saying it showed Damascus was serious in its intention to resolve conflict in the country.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said yesterday that Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, had contacted it with a request for technical assistance.

But the UN has asked Syria for more information about its application to join the chemical weapons convention, holding up accession, a spokesman said yesterday.

“We are in touch with the Syrian government about their application. We are trying to obtain some further information so that the accession process can be completed,” said a UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

He declined to say what information was missing.

Syria had been one of seven UN members that have refused to join the 1993 convention banning the production and stockpiling of chemical arms.

The talks are part of a diplomatic push that prompted US president Barack Obama to put on hold his plans for US air strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack.

“I believe that the report will be an overwhelming, overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used even,” Mr Ban said at a UN meeting yesterday.

Moscow’s proposal also spared Mr Obama facing a vote in Congress on military action that he had appeared increasingly likely to lose at this stage.

The US and its allies say Assad regime forces carried out the attack with sarin nerve gas, killing more than 1,400 people. Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad have blamed rebel forces.

The Syrian opposition complains that chemical weapons are a sideshow and want their allies to step up their support, notably in the form of armaments, to help them topple Mr Al Assad. Rebels say the Assad regime has been buoyed by Mr Obama’s failure to attack.

Reuters

Published: September 13, 2013 04:00 AM

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