Syria diplomacy: All eyes on US-Russia talks

John Kerry on Capitol Hill. 10 Sept 2013 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Kerry is to hold key talks in Geneva on Thursday

From the moment that US Secretary of State John Kerry made his off-the-cuff remark in London, the diplomacy has been conducted at a hurtling and disorientating pace.

But it stalled at the United Nations because of the failure to reach agreement over how Russia's chemical weapons handover plan should be enforced.

France, with the backing of America and Britain, is pushing for a toughly-worded resolution that carries the threat of military action if the Assad regime fails to meet its obligations to surrender all its chemical weapons.

It invokes Chapter Seven of the UN Charter which authorises the use of force. It also blames the Syrian government for the 21 August massacre and calls for its perpetrators to face prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

Russia, which continues to blame the Syrian opposition for the chemical weapons attack, does not want any resolution and certainly not one backed with the threat of force.

Instead, it is proposing a presidential statement from the United Nations Security Council enshrining its ideas. The problem is that such statements are non-binding and thus unenforceable. The international community would have to place its trust in the Assad regime, which up until now has denied the very existence of a chemical weapons arsenal.

It is very hard to see Russia agreeing to a UN resolution that would potentially expose its ally to US military strikes.

For Moscow, the Libya precedent also looms large. Russia regrets not using its veto to block what it later called a "hastily passed" UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force in Libya and creating the no-fly zone.

Russia believes America, France and Britain used that resolution essentially as a blank cheque to press for regime change.

Equally, it is difficult to see France, America and the UK agreeing to a non-binding statement from the Security Council. They will fear that Russia and Syria are playing them for fools, and that they have been dealing with a phoney offer.

So what next?

Diplomats at the UN would appear to be in a holding pattern until a critical meeting takes place in Geneva between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

If there is to be an agreement, it will be hammered out between the US and Russia. They are the key players. News of the meeting emerged shortly after Russia cancelled a closed-door session of the UN Security Council that it had requested only hours before. It was a tacit acknowledgment that the real diplomacy will take place there.

Public attention may have been on Barack Obama as he delivered his nationwide televised address.

But diplomats' eyes will be on what happens behind closed doors in Geneva, and also on the private discussions that President Obama may end up having with Vladimir Putin. If there is to be a breakthrough this week, it will come during those talks rather than in New York.

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