Seeming to no longer fear a U.S. attack, an emboldened Bashar Assad is adding to his list of demands in exchange for handing over Syria’s chemical weapons, fueling concerns in Washington that — with Russia’s backing — he’s succeeding in turning the tables on Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating effort in Geneva.
“They’re just kind of playing with us,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Fox News on Friday.
Kerry was meeting for a second day Friday with Russian and Syrian diplomats to try and work out the framework for a deal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons to international control, and avert military action by the U.S. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he expects a soon-to-be-released report to show chemical weapons were used in Syria last month — though U.N. inspectors are not expected to say who used them.
Sensing perhaps that the threat of a U.S. military strike is no longer imminent, Assad is publicly trying to strengthen his hand. In an interview with Russian television, he not only demanded the U.S. drop the threat of military action — he also said the Obama administration must stop arming the opposition.
“When we see that the U.S. genuinely stands for stability in our region, stops threatening us with military intervention and stops supplying terrorists with weapons, then we will consider it possible to finalize all necessary procedures and they will become legitimate and acceptable for Syria,” Assad said, according to the translation by Russia’s RIA Novosti. “Terrorists” is the term Assad often applies to members of the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration decided months ago to start arming the Syrian opposition, after prior evidence of chemical weapons use. Media reports this week said the CIA, after a significant delay, has started to deliver small arms to the rebels.
Assad made one other request that might be difficult to satisfy. He said that all countries in the area must honor anti-chemical weapons agreements, “and the first country to do so is Israel because it possesses nuclear, chemical and biological weapons — all types of weapons of mass destruction.”
Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention 20 years ago, but did not end up ratifying it.
The Assad government now claims effectively to be a party to that weapons agreement. But Syrian government officials say they need a month to submit data on their stockpiles.
Kerry objected to that time frame on Thursday, suggesting that was too long.
On Friday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, made a demand of his own, writing a letter to Kerry saying that bioweapons should also be included in the disarmament talks with Syria.
“I remain highly skeptical of Russia’s true intentions, but I believe omitting Assad’s bioweapons from any agreement would represent a gaping hole in the plan and would not adequately protect U.S. national security interests,” he said.
Kerry, on Thursday, stressed that the negotiations are not a “game,” and that the U.S. must keep the threat of military action on the table in order to keep the pressure on Assad. The military build-up continues, as Russia reportedly dispatched several ships to the eastern Mediterranean, while the U.S. keeps its ships in position in the region.
Kerry said Friday that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have had “constructive conversations.”
“I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise,” he said. “We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen and we discussed some of the homework that we both need to do.”
He said he and Lavrov agreed to meet again in New York later in the month.