US, Russia talk Syria for third day

John Kerry and his Russian counterpart seek to hammer out a deal on eliminating Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons

The United States and Russia will embark on a third day of talks Saturday, seeking to hammer out a deal to eliminate Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons amid persistent differences.

The dialogue comes in advance of a broader conference on the Syrian conflict that Secretary of State John Kerry said would take place in New York later this month, around the time of the United Nations General Assembly meeting.   

Kerry met on Friday with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, in Geneva, where the United States and Russia are conducting negotiations over a Russian plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons from the country.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday that the three diplomats had all agreed during the day’s meeting that a political solution to the conflict was the only realistic way to stop the violence.

A spokesman for Lavrov said he and Kerry had outlined "the logistics, process and agenda for the days ahead, and they agreed on a shared goal of achieving a framework for the path forward."

Brahimi said working to remove chemical weapons from Syria would form an important element in efforts to hold new peace talks, after a failed attempt in Geneva last year.

Reporting from Geneva, Al Jazeera's Neave Barker called Friday's gestures toward collaboration "very diplomatic talk."

Washington blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for an alleged chemical attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed 1,429 people, sparking threats of a U.S.-led military strike against the regime.

In line with Moscow's position on the issue, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a New York Times op-ed article on Wednesday that "there is every reason to believe" the attack was perpetrated by opposition forces, not by Assad.

"They know it is going to be extremely hard to find common ground because there are so many clear-cut differences," Barker said.

"Whether or not Russia and U.S. could work through these differences is yet to be seen, but if there is a breakthrough, it is going to have a major impact on the situation in Syria," he added.

On Thursday, a U.S. official told Al Jazeera that President Barack Obama would be open to a U.N. resolution to secure Syria's chemical weapons that does not include the threat of military force for failing to abide by the agreement, due to opposition from Russia.

The meetings in Geneva occur as U.N. chemical-weapons investigators prepare to release their report on the chemical attack.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the State Department both said they expect the report to confirm that chemical weapons had in fact been used.

Ban also commented that Assad had "committed many crimes against humanity."

Damascus death-toll scrutiny

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Progress on the diplomatic front comes as President Barack Obama's proposed military action against the regime hit another roadblock in Congress Thursday.

The administration has repeatedly said 1,429 people died in the August attack allegedly carried out by Syrian government forces, but that estimate is now under scrutiny.

Three congressional sources told Reuters Thursday that administration officials had indicated in private that some deaths might have been caused by the conventional bombing that followed the release of sarin gas in suburban Damascus neighborhoods. This disclosure undermined support for Obama's plan to strike Syria, they said.

"The intelligence community has a high bar for its assessments, but it is virtually impossible to achieve 100 percent certitude," said Shawn Turner, chief spokesman for the director of national intelligence, in response to questions about the contested death toll.

Obama requested Tuesday that Congress postpone debate about the strike while Kerry and the U.N. try for a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue.

Assad denies that his regime is responsible for the attack and pins the blame on rebel forces.

'This is not a game'

Barker said Russian and U.S. discussions over a plan to remove chemical weapons aim to pave the way for possibly hundreds of international scientists to destroy Assad's chemical arsenal.

Many chemical weapons experts say that cataloging, relocating and destroying Assad's considerable chemical arsenal in the middle of a war zone would be extremely arduous. Thousands of armed troops and a lengthy cease-fire could be required.

"This whole process depends on the Syrians making a fully complete disclosure about their arms stores," said Dan Kaszeta, who served as a chemical weapons specialist with the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense and now runs the consultancy Strongpoint Security in London. "And this is a regime that has not been forthcoming about its chemical arsenal."

Meanwhile, Syria became a full member of the global anti-chemical weapons treaty, a move that Damascus promised as part of Russia's plan. Chemical weapons regulators at The Hague confirmed on Friday that they had been contacted by the Syrian government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the move "an important step toward the resolution of the Syrian crisis."

But Kerry underscored that Washington could still attack if it was not satisfied. "This is not a game," he said Thursday.

Kerry will meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Paris on Monday to further discuss Syria.

Meanwhile, violence continues unabated across Syria, with the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group that documents the war's casualties, reporting more than 170 dead from Thursday's fighting and regime shelling around the country.

A U.N. report on Wednesday said that in the course of the two-and-a-half-year civil war, Syrian government forces have deliberately targeted hospitals, attacked field hospitals with fighter jets and prevented the sick and wounded from receiving medical care. The report also said that Syrian rebels have engaged in abuses, including murder, torture and hostage taking.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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