GENEVA -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva Thursday morning to test the seriousness of a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons.
Kerry and a team of U.S. experts will have at least two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts on Thursday and Friday. They hope to emerge with an outline of how some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials as well as potential delivery systems can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.
Officials with Kerry said they would be looking for a rapid agreement on principles for the process with Russians, including a demand for a speedy Syrian accounting of their stockpiles.
One official said the task is "doable but difficult and complicated."
The official said the U.S. is looking for signs of Russian seriousness and thinks it will know in a relatively short time if the Russians are trying to stall. Another official described the ideas that the Russians have presented so far as "an opening position" that needs a lot of work and input from technical experts. The U.S. team includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publically on the sensitive negotiations.
The hastily arranged meeting in Geneva comes as the White House tries to pin success or failure of the diplomatic track on Russia's willingness to take a tough line with its ally Syria. Syrian rebels, however, are disappointed at best in President Barack Obama's decision to forgo a military strike in favor of an agreement to take access to chemical weapons away from President Bashar Assad.
At the same time, the CIA has begun delivering light weapons and other munitions to the rebels over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear, The Washington Post reported late Wednesday. The deliveries have lagged, the newspaper said, because of logistical challenges and U.S. fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of extremists. Some U.S. lawmakers have chided the administration, which said months ago it would send lethal aid, for not moving more quickly to help the rebels.
Obama also found opposition in Congress to putting on hold his request for authorization to punish Assad militarily for his government's alleged role in a chemical attack on Damascus suburbs last month. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, asserted in an opinion piece in The New York Times that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria and unleash a new wave of terrorism.
In meetings planned for later Thursday and again Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry will prod Moscow to put forward a credible and verifiable plan to inventory, quarantine and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, according to U.S. officials.
Kerry is accompanied by American chemical weapons experts to look at and possibly expand on Russian ideas for the complex task of safely dealing with the vast stockpiles in the midst of a brutal and unpredictable conflict. Russian technical experts will join Lavrov in the meetings.
"Our goal here is to test the seriousness of this proposal, to talk about the specifics of how this would get done, what are the mechanics of identifying, verifying, securing and ultimately destroying the chemical weapons," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said shortly before Kerry left Washington.
The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new U.N. Security Council resolution being negotiated that would hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons. Russia, however, has long opposed U.N. action on Syria, vetoed three earlier resolutions, blocked numerous, less severe condemnations and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because contacts have been private, said Thursday's meeting will be an exploratory session to gauge whether they can embark on "the herculean task" of dismantling Syria's chemical weapons while the country is at war.
In his column posted Wednesday on the Times website, Putin asserted that it is "alarming" that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries "has become commonplace for the United States."
"Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it," Putin wrote. "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan `you're either with us or against us."'
Putin said he favored taking advantage of Syria's willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control and welcomed Obama's interest in continuing to discuss Syria with Russia.
"If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust," he wrote. "It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues."
American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remained ready to strike Syria if ordered, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. Syrian rebels appeared skeptical that U.S. forces would be put to use, saying the Americans have repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion. They pointed to Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Assad's forces have gained the advantage.
"We're on our own," Mohammad Joud, an opposition fighter in the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo, said via Skype. "I always knew that, but thanks to Obama's shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well."
Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London, said the Syrian opposition will struggle with morale and sense of purpose.
"Assad's regime is going to be stronger because while they've agreed to give up their chemical weapons, they get to keep everything else to fight the opposition that has lost territory in the past year and has now suffered a big blow," Kamel said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to put a deadline on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff but said bringing Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control "obviously will take some time."
"Russia is now putting its prestige on the line," Carney said Wednesday. Asked if U.S. prestige also was on the line, Carney responded: "The United States leads in these situations. And it's not always popular and it's not always comfortable."
On Capitol Hill, action on any congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia's diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.
"The whole terrain has changed," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We want to make sure we do nothing that's going to derail what's going on."
That didn't stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama's initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., accused the president of engaging in "pinball diplomacy."
WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry says there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria, with intelligence strongly pointing to Bashar Assad's government, and "this international norm cannot be violated without consequences."
Kerry's tough language marked the clearest justification yet for U.S. military action in Syria, which, if President Barack Obama decides to approve, most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare.
"By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable," said Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.
Obama has not decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The White House said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line." The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria's civil war began more than two years ago.
Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.
The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.
"We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."
The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week's attack. The U.S. said Syria's delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use. U.N. officials disagreed that it was too late.
"What is before us today is real and it is compelling," Kerry said. "Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts."
The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Administration officials said the U.S. had additional intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.
Officials stopped short of unequivocally stating that Assad's government was behind the attack. But they said there was "very little doubt" that it originated with the regime, noting that Syria's rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country's chemical weapons stockpile.
Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack.
It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.
More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a "red line" and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.
Last week's attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama's credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.
Syrian activists say the Aug. 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.
The U.S. Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship can launch ballistic missiles.
Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.
Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.
The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had "preliminary communication" with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.
It's unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama's travel schedule — he's due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in South Korea on Friday on an unusual diplomatic journey, traveling directly into a region bracing for a possible North Korean missile test and risking that his presence alone could spur Pyongyang into another headline-seeking provocation.
Kerry was kicking off four days of talks in East Asia amid speculation that the North's unpredictable regime would launch a mid-range missile designed to reach as far as the U.S. territory of Guam. Kerry also planned to visit China and Japan.
North Korea often times its provocations to generate maximum attention, and Kerry's presence in Seoul will provide plenty of that, even if the United States is engaged in intense diplomacy with China, the North's benefactor, in an effort to lower tensions. Another dangerous date on the calendar is April 15, the 101st birthday of North Korea's deceased founder, Kim Il Sung.
Kerry's trip coincides with the disclosure of a new U.S. intelligence report that concludes North Korea has advanced its nuclear knowhow to the point that it could arm a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. The analysis, disclosed Thursday at a congressional hearing in Washington, said the Pentagon's intelligence wing has "moderate confidence" that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles but that the weapon would be unreliable.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said afterward that "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced" at the congressional hearing.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said he concurred with Little and noted that the report alluded to at the hearing was compiled by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and was not an assessment by the entire U.S. intelligence community. "Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile," he said.
President Barack Obama on Thursday urged calm, calling on Pyongyang to end its saber-rattling while sternly warning that he would "take all necessary steps" to protect American citizens.
Kerry's trip marks his first foray to the Asia-Pacific as America's top diplomat, spearheading the effort to "pivot" U.S. power away from Europe and the Middle East and toward the world's most populous region and fulcrum of economic growth.
And it comes on the heels of months of provocative action and warlike rhetoric from Pyongyang, including talk of nuclear strikes against the United States - however outlandish analysts consider such threats. No one is discounting the danger entirely after tests of a nuclear device and ballistic missile technology in recent months.
Kerry's trip was planned well in advance of the latest danger to destabilize the Korean peninsula: North Korea's apparent preparations for another missile test in defiance of United Nations resolutions. The crisis clearly has overtaken the rest of his Asian agenda.
The Obama administration believes North Korea is preparing for another missile test, said a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry on the plane to Seoul. "We will show to our allies that we are prepared and we will defend them," the official said.
To mitigate the threat, however, Kerry is largely depending on China to take a bigger role in pressuring North Korea to live up to previous agreements to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It's a strategy that has worked poorly for the U.S. for more than two decades.
Beijing has the most leverage with Pyongyang. It has massively boosted trade with its communist neighbor and maintains close military ties. And the U.S. believes the Chinese could take several specific steps to show North Korea it cannot threaten regional stability with impunity.
These include getting China to cut off support for North Korea's weapons of mass destruction program, said the State Department official and another senior administration official, though they rejected that the U.S. was seeking a commercial embargo against the North.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about Kerry's meetings in advance.
Neither could say, however, whether Pyongyang under its enigmatic young leader, Kim Jong Un, was actually listening at this point. One of them stressed that he "wouldn't say there is no conversation between them," but declined to describe the level and impact of Chinese-North Korean contacts.
Kim's actual control of the country also is unclear, the official added. Now 29 or 30, the basketball devotee and product of a Swiss boarding school inherited power from his late father, Kim Jong Il, some 16 months ago and has seemed to lead his country on an increasingly reckless path toward possible confrontation.
That has led many observers and policymakers abroad to devote increasing time toward analyzing what little information they have on Kim to figure out how he can be mollified without being rewarded.
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander is preparing to announce what he calls a "major securities action" that involves millions of dollars.
Kander scheduled a news conference Thursday at the Old Post Office in St. Louis. His office says Kander will seek restitution, civil penalties and fees and costs, but no other details have been released.
The secretary of state's office is Missouri's chief overseer and enforcer of securities laws intended to protect investors from unfair practices and fraudulent schemes.