Close Call

Inside Kerry’s Syria Diplomacy

The United Nations resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament could have been worse. Eli Lake goes inside the last-minute scramble between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov.

Last Tuesday, after a day of back-to-back meetings, John Kerry felt Russia’s foreign minister needed to give his diplomats more room to negotiate the final language of a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. That resolution, which passed the council unanimously on Friday, instructs Syria to comply with intrusive inspections of its chemical weapons program as a first step in dismantling it.

The resolution was a major accomplishment for the Obama administration. But there was a risk last week that it would never be ready for a vote. The Daily Beast has obtained notes of Kerry’s meetings with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that show how the two men worked out the last details of the document Obama hopes will save him from entering Syria’s civil war and eliminate the chemical weapons he says the regime used against its own people on August 21.

According to the notes, one problem was that Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, was not authorized to accept new language spelling out Syria’s obligations in the resolution. The U.S. and Russia disagreed on whether the document should explicitly require Syria to accept U.N. personnel and prohibit delay tactics like denying access to suspected chemical weapons sites, according to U.S. officials who spoke to the Daily Beast on condition of anonymity and notes of Kerry’s discussions that week.

So at 11 p.m., Kerry called Churkin’s boss and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. The notes say the call “could only be described as a difficult conversation.” Lavrov did not want to commit to a new position without meeting face to face. Kerry wanted to get the Russians to agree to more explicit and detailed language on Syria’s obligations to the U.N. inspectors.

Despite a broad outline for weapons inspections reached less than two weeks earlier in Geneva between Kerry and Lavrov, the final wording of the U.N. resolution was by no means a done deal. Much was riding on the talks as well. Obama had staked America’s reputation on a U.N.-led process to disarm Syria after the Ghouta attack on a Damascus suburb, which killed nearly 1,500 people, according to Kerry’s testimony in Congress last month.

Now Kerry was Obama’s leading negotiator to avoid U.S. military action, but the important details of the resolution were not resolved. On Thursday Kerry arranged for one more meeting with Lavrov to discuss the resolution scheduled for 3:30 p.m., half an hour before he met with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

State Department officials said the Lavrov meeting was a success. According to the notes from the meeting, “The crux of the discussion in this meeting with Lavrov, held in the US bilateral room off the Security Council chamber, was specificity and compliance.” At issue was that “the Russians were more willing to trust the Assad regime to comply, and we wanted the strongest language possible to force the Assad regime to comply.” After about 30 minutes, “the two men shook hands to make it official, and then both negotiating teams left the room so they could meet one-on-one.”

To be sure, the United States acceded to several Russian demands. The final U.N. resolution does not ascribe blame for the August 21 chemical attacks or include earlier U.S. language calling for an investigation into the incident by the International Criminal Court. In the section of the resolution dealing with consequences for Syrian noncompliance, the resolution does not spell out sanctions or military force if President Bashar al-Assad fails to comply. In practice this would mean that any punishment against Syria for noncompliance would require a new U.N. Security Council Resolution.

This section also invokes Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, diplomatic code in the past for authorizing military force or economic sanctions. U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that Kerry persuaded Lavrov to accept the Chapter 7 reference.

Kerry also persuaded Lavrov to accept a paragraph of the resolution that imposes the terms of the inspection and disarmament on Syria. This section specifies Syria must accept U.N. inspectors, provide for their security, and provide “immediate and unfettered” access to both sites and to individuals suspected to be involved in Syria’s chemical weapons program.

In the 1990s, Iraq would often deny access to U.N. inspectors to scientists and suspected weapons sites. Iran later denied access to a number of sites suspected to be part of its undeclared nuclear weapons program. Iranian leaders have said publicly the country is not building a bomb.

Thomas Moore, a former Republican senior staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Kerry deserved credit for getting the resolution. “While Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov hammered the specifics and deserve credit for that, we can’t really say that U.S.-Russian relations came out of this better than before it started,” he said. “Russia and the United States still have major disagreements about who used chemical weapons and how the chemical weapons will be destroyed, where they come from and where they went.”

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Paula DeSutter, a former assistant secretary of State for verification and compliance, said she was concerned about the sequence of disarmament proposed for Syria. “One has to wonder if the continued Russian failure to acknowledge Syria’s culpability for chemical weapons use is part of the explanation for why a U.S. Russia framework and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) decision leaves weapons as the last thing to be disposed of. To me that is inexplicable,” she said.

After the Lavrov and Kerry handshake on Thursday, the OPCW worked quickly to vote on and approve a resolution at The Hague on Friday. In New York the groundwork was set for the U.N. Security Council vote. By 8 p.m. on Friday the Security Council began voting on the resolution. Kerry and his team finally exhaled. “Something that two weeks ago seemed impossible was now a reality,” the notes said. After the council passed the resolution unanimously. Kerry chatted with some of his counterparts at the council and thanked his team for their hard work. Within the hour he was on his plane headed out of New York.