Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to ensure that a Russian proposal to secure Syria's chemical weapons will be intrusive enough and enforceable to bolster a diplomatic initiative to hold Syria to account for using the banned arms.
The hastily arranged trip 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 away access to chemical weapons from President Bashar Assad.
At the same time, the trip comes as 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 action on 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 York Times that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria and unleash a wave of terrorism.
In meetings planned for later Thursday and again on 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 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 and blocked numerous previous 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 that 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.