Diplomacy designed to end the Syrian civil war entered a new chapter Thursday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland.
The high-stakes discussions center on a Russian initiative to avert a U.S.-led strike by having the Syrian government put its chemical weapons stockpile under international control.
They are expected to come up with a blueprint on how to implement the idea and when to do it. Kerry is bringing a team of experts to deal with "identifying the mechanics" of how the plan will work.
World powers are hoping that the initiative will eventually lead to a political solution to end the deadly civil war.
LATEST DEVELOPMENTS THURSDAY:
• At least 94 people were reported dead Thursday across Syria, including 24 in Daraa province, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria. This figure includes 27 deaths in Daraa province and another 26 in Aleppo province.
• The same group documented shelling that struck nearly 500 locales, along with almost 50 military jet attacks.
KERRY-LAVROV GENEVA MEETING:
• The talks in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov possibly could extend to Saturday.
• Speaking in Geneva, Kerry said the military option is still on the table. "We are serious, as you are, about engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations even as our military maintains its current posture to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime."
• Kerry said the U.S.-Russia efforts to pursue a transfer of Syria's chemical weapons to international control "is not a game." He said it has to be "comprehensive," "verifiable," and "implemented in a timely fashion," warning there must be consequences if Syria doesn't follow through.
• Syria has said it wants to pursue the Russian initiative of placing its chemical weapons under international control, but Kerry said "the world wonders and watches closely whether or not the (Bashar al-) Assad regime will live up to its public commitments that it's made to give up their chemical weapons and whether two of the world's most powerful nations can, together, take a critical step forward in order to hold the regime to its stated promises."
• The Russian delegation "has put some ideas forward and we're grateful for that," Kerry said. "We respect it. and we have prepared our own principles that any plan to accomplish this needs to encompass. Expectations are high. They are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia to deliver on the promise of this moment."
• Lavrov said his meeting with Kerry will "proceed from the fact" that a solution to the problem will make "unnecessary any strike on Syria."
ON THE GROUND:
• Syrian state TV is reporting that the army is making significant gains to retake the historic Christian town of Maaloula. But a video posted by rebels shows fighters cheering "God is greater" and they deny the government claim.
• SANA, Syria's official news agency, tweeted that the Army "eliminates terrorists" -- the term the government uses for rebel fighters -- in Daraa, Deir Ezzor and Hasaka, among other locales.
• U.S. officials estimate that at least 2,000 members of Hezbollah -- a pro-Syrian group based in Lebanon that the United States has designed as a terrorist organization -- are in Syria fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad and his government.
• Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday that he has intelligence Syria's government has began "to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and Iraq." Idriss' claim could not be independently verified.
• Iraq denied Idriss' claim completely, with Ali al-Moussawi --- an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- speculating "there is a political agenda" behind it. " We were the victims of chemical weapons under Saddam (Hussein's) regime, and we will never allow to let any country to transfer chemical materials to our lands at all," al-Moussawi said.
• In the same interview with CNN's Amanpour, Idriss said he'd recently talked U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, who told him "if our friends discover that the regime is trying to play games and waste time, the threat of the strikes is still on the table."
"We are getting now a lot of support from our American friends," Idriss added, "but I can't talk in detail about all kinds of the support."
• U.S.-funded weapons have begun flowing to Syrian rebels, a U.S. official told CNN. The weapons, which are not American-made although are funded and organized by the CIA, started to reach rebels in the last two weeks, according to the source. The artillery provided were described as light weapons, some anti-tank weapons and ammunition. This is in addition to the nonlethal aid that the U.S. has been providing.
• Kerry spoke Thursday with two top Syrian opposition leaders ahead of his meeting with Lavrov. He told the leaders he is seeking tangible commitments that the Russians are interested in achieving a credible agreement to rapidly identify, verify, secure, and ultimately destroy al-Assad's chemical weapons stockpile, according to a senior State Department official. He reiterated that President Obama's threat of military action very much remains on the table.
• There's uncertainty about the makeup of opposition fighters. One U.S. official says "only a minority are extremist," referring specifically to those belonging to the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. Yet U.S. officials familiar with intelligence assessments say many more rebel fighters than belong to that group may want to establish an Islamic state in Syria.
Kerry said last week that 15 to 25% rebel fighters could be considered Islamic extremists, though one U.S. official disputes that claim. "Most of the military opposition is Islamist in orientation," he said, "and the bulk of the main (rebel) fighting forces fall somewhere in the moderate-to-conservative Islamist category." Previously, a senior U.S. military official said, "We do not see the clear division between moderates and extremists that some have suggested."
THE UNITED NATIONS:
• Britain believes that Syria, even after it signs on to the chemical weapons convention affirming its commitment not to use such arms, should still be subject to a U.N. Security Council resolution, a spokesman at the UK mission to the United Nations said. Such a measure should "establish ... a strengthened, accelerated and mandatory mechanism for securing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons," the spokesman said.
• The U.N. report on last month's alleged chemical attack outside Damascus will "probably" be published on Monday and there will "certainly be indications" pointing the origin of the attack towards the Assad regime, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said during a live interview on French radio RTL in Paris on Thursday.
• A diplomatic source familiar with negotiations over a text of a possible U.N. Security Council resolution said it is less of a French initiative now and more of a joint proposal between France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The resolution is still under Chapter 7, which refers to all "necessary measures" to achieve humanitarian goals and called for a 15-day timeline under which the Syrian government would have to declare its chemical weapons. The resolution also retains the early French demand that the perpetrators of the August 21 chemical weapons attack be put on trial at the International Criminal Court.
• Syria has formally asked to join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said Thursday. "With this, the chapter of the so-called chemical weapons should be ended," Ja'afari added.
• The letter from Syria's government has been sent to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and is being reviewed by U.N. lawyers to determine whether it meets requirements to join the chemical weapons convention, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said. If it does, Ban would register the letter and Syria would officially be a member state in the convention.
• Ja'afari explained that Syria had chemical weapons -- something it didn't publicly admit until this month -- as "a mere deterrent against the Israeli nuclear arsenal."
• The ambassador cautioned reporters against jumping to conclusions, including on what U.N. inspectors will determine with respect to the investigation into an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. "The media might be a weapon of mass destruction, too," Ja'afari said.
BASHAR AL-ASSAD INTERVIEW:
• Syria's decision to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international control was the result of Russia's proposal rather than the threat of a U.S. military strike, al-Assad told a Russian TV channel Thursday. "Syria is handing over its chemical weapons under international supervision because of Russia," al-Assad said in an interview with state-run news channel Russia-24. "The U.S. threats did not influence the decision."
• Al-Assad laid out the timeline for applying to the convention in an interview with Russian TV on Thursday, the first step being sending the application to the United Nations with the necessary technical documents. Next: beginning work that will lead to the signing of the convention. "After that, the convention will go into effect and, in my opinion, the agreement will begin to apply within one month of signing it. And Syria will begin to give international organizations data about the stores of chemical weapons. This is a standard process which is expected and we will abide by it," al-Assad said.
• The Syrian president added that his government's signing of the international agreement is not "unilateral." It is contingent, he said, on the United States ceasing its threats of military action and the acceptance of Russia's proposal to transfer the arms to international control. "When we see that the United States really wants stability in our region, and will stop threatening and striving to attack, and will stop proving weapons to the terrorists, then we will consider that we can carry out these necessary processes to the end. And they (the processes) will put into effect by Syria," al-Assad said. "The most important role belongs to the Russian government because we do not trust the United States and have no contact. Russia is the only government that can carry this out right now."
• Russian President Vladimir Putin took to The New York Times to argue against military intervention in Syria and jab his U.S. counterpart. Striking Syria would have many negative ramifications, Putin argued, including the killing of innocent people, spreading violence around the Middle East, clouding diplomatic efforts to address Iran's nuclear crisis and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and "unleash(ing) a new wave of terrorism."
• Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez told CNN he "almost wanted to vomit" after reading the piece. "The reality is I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious this Russian proposal is," he said.
• President Obama said he is "hopeful" that Kerry's meeting with Lavrov "can yield a concrete result." "John Kerry is overseas meeting on a topic we have been spending a lot of time on the last several weeks -- the situation in Syria -- and how we can make sure that chemical weapons are not used against innocent people."
• House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said he thinks it's possible chemical weapons in Syria can be destroyed. "I think it can happen. And we can get rid of sarin gas now. In the old days, it was a much more complicated process. New technology would mean you could get in and do a lot of destruction in a short period of time in a way that's safe and final, especially on sarin gas. Mustard gas and other things, still gonna take longer. You gotta build incinerators to burn."
• State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf joined fellow U.S. officials in rallying behind efforts to "destroy the entire stockpile" of Syria's chemical weapons, saying it is "obviously the preference" to do that peacefully. She also stated -- as President Barack Obama's administration has said before -- that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "has no legitimacy and can no longer be leader of Syria."
• White House spokesman Jay Carney fired back Thursday at comments by Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, questioning Obama's ability to be commander in chief. "I think that the American people, at least in my assessment, appreciate a commander in chief who takes in new information and doesn't celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness," Carney said.
• British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the United Kingdom is heartened by the Russian "diplomatic opening." But he warned that "any commitment" from Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime to hand over its chemical weapons "must be treated with great caution." "This is a regime that has lied for years about possessing chemical weapons, that still denies it has used them, and that refused for four months to allow U.N. inspectors into Syria."
• The top leaders of Turkey, one of Syria's neighbors, weighed in on the latest diplomacy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Syrian regime has fulfilled none of its "commitments" and has broken promises to gain time to carry out its actions. President Abdullah Gul said a handover of chemical weapons would be an "important development," but it should be an "overall disposal" and not just a "tactic."