Despite the tensions, Kerry said the United States is serious “about engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations even as our military maintains its current posture to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime.”
He added that diplomacy cannot become a delaying tactic.
“This is not a game,” he said, as the talks began in this Swiss city, once the site of historic U.S.-Russia arms-control talks and the original international covenant banning chemical weapons as a tool of war.
Kerry and Lavrov did not take questions at their appearance before reporters. Lavrov made a point of saying that the discussions should “move this situation from this current stage of military confrontation.”
“We proceed from the fact that the solution of this problem will make unnecessary any strike on the Syrian Arab Republic,” he said through an interpreter.
Kerry responded that it was only the threat of military action that had created the diplomatic opening and that the United States will remain ready to strike.
In a briefing for reporters traveling with Kerry, senior State Department officials said the U.S. delegation would present the Russians with information about sites where U.S. intelligence suspects Syria’s estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons are stored. Officials expect the Russians to provide their own assessment, presumably with information furnished by the Syrian government.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they also expected to discuss security concerns regarding international arms inspectors. “We’ve suggested to the Russians they come prepared to discuss it, as well. It is certainly not a permissive environment,” one official said.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, told reporters that the United Nations has received a document from the Syrian government indicating its commitment to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was not clear whether the document, which he said was written in Arabic and was being translated, included any preconditions.
“This starts the process” of becoming a member of the convention, Haq said.
Security Council members are expected to meet Monday, when Ban would brief them on the findings of a U.N. chemical weapons team that probed the Aug. 21 attack.
The inspection team was mandated only to determine whether the attack had occurred, not to affix blame. But a senior Western official at the United Nations said the inspectors collected “a wealth” of evidence that formed a circumstantial case against Assad’s forces.
In his Tuesday interview with Russia’s Rossiya 24 television, Assad said “terrorists,” the term he has long used to refer to rebel fighters, “are trying to incite a U.S. attack against Syria.” Repeating his charge that the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, he said that “there are countries that supply chemical substances” to the Syrian opposition.
It was only Tuesday that Assad’s government acknowledged for the first time the existence of its chemical weapons stockpile. Although Assad said he had agreed to sign the arsenal over to international control, he insisted that it would happen only “when we see that the United States truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade,” as well as supplying the rebels.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Will Englund in Moscow, Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.