Middle East

Kerry calls Syria chemical weapons talks 'constructive'

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Media captionThe BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on "exceptionally heavy shelling" in Damascus

US Secretary of State John Kerry has described as "constructive" talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on securing Syria's chemical weapons.

The two men began a second day of talks in Geneva by meeting UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Mr Kerry said he hoped a date could be set for wider peace talks on Syria but that "much would depend" on progress on the chemical weapons issue.

The talks are expected to last until Saturday.

The BBC's James Robbins in Geneva says the two powers will work over the next few weeks to try to revive the wider peace talks to end Syria's civil war, but until they reach agreement on the narrower issues of chemical weapons, that feels like a distant prospect.

Washington and its allies accuse the Syrian government of killing hundreds of people in a chemical attack in the Ghouta area of the capital, Damascus, on 21 August. The government denies the allegation, blaming rebels.

On Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said a UN report due out next week on the incident would be "an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used".

The remit of the report is not to apportion blame and Mr Ban made no comment on that issue.

But he did say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had "carried out many crimes against humanity".

The BBC's Nick Bryant says Mr Ban appears not to have realised his comments were being broadcast.

Chief chemical weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom confirmed the report had now been completed.

US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US believed the UN report would not assign blame but that it would "reinforce what we have already said" about the Ghouta incident.

In other developments on Friday:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin called Damascus's decision to join the Chemical Weapons Convention "an important step towards the resolution of the Syrian crisis" and said it showed the "serious intention" of President Assad "to follow this path"
  • Syrian rebels said such a move would not stop the killing. Free Syrian Army spokesperson Louay Moqdad told the BBC that Mr Assad still had plenty of conventional weapons at his disposal and was trying to "buy time" with the help of the Russians
  • UN war crimes investigators accused government forces of deliberately targeting hospitals in opposition-controlled areas to use "the denial of medical care as a weapon of war", but said they also had evidence that "some anti-government armed groups have attacked hospitals".
  • Syrian government and pro-government forces summarily killed at least 248 people in al-Bayda and Baniyas on 2-3 May, Human Rights Watch said in a report based on interviews with witnesses

'Deeply committed'

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov met Mr Brahimi at the UN headquarters in Geneva to discuss his attempts to keep efforts for a peace process on the table.

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Media captionJohn Kerry: "We are both deeply concerned about the acts on all sides"

Speaking afterwards at a brief news conference, Mr Kerry said that they planned to meet again on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later in the month to try to set a date for a long-delayed peace conference known as Geneva 2.

He said his talks with Mr Lavrov so far had been "constructive" but progress in New York would depend on "the capacity to have success here in the next hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons".

He said both the US and Russia were "deeply committed to a negotiated solution" to the conflict in Syria and he and Mr Lavrov were "working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen".

Mr Lavrov said he welcomed the chance to discuss the "longer term goal" of peace in Syria, and that now Syria had joined the Chemical Weapons Convention it was necessary "to design a road which would make sure that this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as is practical".

The US and Russia have sent large teams to Geneva that include weapons experts as well as diplomats.

If the talks are successful, the US hopes the disarmament process will be agreed in a UN Security Council resolution.

However, Russia regards as unacceptable any resolution backed by military force, or a resolution that blames the Syrian government for chemical attacks.

Moscow has already objected to a draft resolution that would be enforced by Chapter VII of the UN charter, which would in effect sanction the use of force if Syria failed in its obligations.

Russia, supported by China, has blocked three previous draft UN resolutions condemning the Assad government.

UN report

Russia announced its proposal for dealing with the escalating chemical weapons crisis on Monday, as the US Congress was preparing to debate whether to back President Barack Obama's moves towards military strikes.

The UN on Thursday confirmed it had received documents from Syria on joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, a key step in the Russian plan, but did not immediately say if it had accepted the application.

Syria's envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, said that "legally speaking", Syria was now a full member of the convention.

President Assad said data on chemical weapons would start to be passed to the UN in 30 days.

Diplomats say that the UN report on the Ghouta incident could point to who carried out the attack, despite that not being part of its official remit.

The diplomats said the report might not lay explicit blame, but that its factual reporting - based on soil, blood and urine samples, and interviews with doctors and witnesses - could suggest who was responsible.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011. Millions of Syrians have been displaced.