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Assad says U.S. must stop threats before he cedes control of chemical weapons

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A fighter of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command aims his rifle in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. The group has been allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad's government whose troops have been fighting rebel forces for the past two years.

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By The Washington Post
Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 7:57 p.m.

GENEVA— Secretary of State John Kerry demanded on Thursday that the Syrian government keep its pledge to give up its chemical weapons arsenal and warned that talks with his Russian counterpart cannot become a delaying tactic.

Appearing before reporters alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said that “achieving a peaceful resolution is clearly preferable to military action” to degrade Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. But he said it was “too early to tell whether or not these efforts will succeed.”

The United States is serious about “engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations,” Kerry said, even as the military maintains pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry spoke after Assad said in a Russian television interview that he was willing to cede control of his country's chemical weapons — but only if the United States stops threatening military action and sending weapons to Syrian rebels.

The Syrian dictator, who is accused of authorizing a poison-gas attack last month that killed more than 1,400 civilians in rebel-held or contested areas, also seemed to link any relinquishing of his arsenal to a requirement that Israel give up the nuclear weapons that it is widely believed to have — but does not acknowledge possessing.

No country in the Middle East, especially Israel, should possess weapons of mass destruction, Assad said in the interview with Rossiya 24 television.

Assad even blamed the United States for last month's chemical attack. “The threats were based on a provocation,” he said. “It was carried out using chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. That provocation was carried out by the U.S. administration.”

“When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized,” Assad said.

He pledged that Damascus would begin handing over information on its chemical weapons stockpiles one month after it joins an international convention outlawing such weapons, as is the standard practice.

Reacting to Assad's position, Kerry said in Geneva, “We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment” because of what he called the Syrian regime's “massive” and “unacceptable” use of chemical weapons to massacre its citizens on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.

“We have in no uncertain terms made it clear that we cannot allow that to happen again,” Kerry said in the joint appearance with Lavrov. “The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough.”

In New York, Syria delivered a document to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon indicating that the Syrian government plans to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, said the United Nations is translating and studying the document, which is in Arabic, and would make it public in “due time.” It was not immediately clear whether the document included any pre-conditions.

“This starts the process” of becoming a member of the 1993 convention, Haq said.

The Syrian action “is the first positive step to secure the chemical weapons in Syria,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

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