GENEVA -- Secretary of State John Kerry demanded Thursday that the Syrian government keep its pledge to give up its chemical weapons arsenal and warned that talks with his Russian counterpart cannot become a delaying tactic.
Appearing before reporters alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry said that "achieving a peaceful resolution is clearly preferable to military action" to degrade Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. But he said it was "too early to tell whether or not these efforts will succeed."
The United States is serious about "engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations," Kerry said, even as the U.S. military maintains pressure on the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.
Kerry spoke after Assad said in a Russian television interview that he was willing to cede control of his country's chemical weapons -- but only if the United States stops threatening military action and sending weapons to Syrian rebels.
The Syrian dictator, who is accused of authorizing a poison-gas attack last month that killed more than 1,400 civilians in rebel-held or contested areas, also seemed to link any relinquishing of his arsenal to a requirement that Israel give up the nuclear weapons that it is widely believed to have -- but does not acknowledge possessing.
No country in the Middle East, especially Israel, should possess weapons of mass destruction, Assad said in the interview with Rossiya 24 television.
Assad even blamed the United States for last month's chemical attack. "The threats were based on a provocation," he said in the interview. "It was carried out using chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. That provocation was carried out by the U.S. administration."
He pledged that Damascus would begin handing over information on its chemical weapons stockpiles one month after it joins an international convention outlawing such weapons, as is the standard practice.
Reacting to Assad's position, Kerry said in Geneva, "We believe there is nothing standard about this process at this moment" because of what he called the Syrian regime's "massive" and "unacceptable" use of chemical weapons to massacre its own citizens on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.
"We have in no uncertain terms made it clear that we cannot allow that to happen again," Kerry said in the joint appearance with Lavrov. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."
Kerry and Lavrov are meeting in Geneva to try to draft a blueprint for getting rid of Syria's chemical arsenal.
Speaking to reporters before an evening meeting with Kerry, Lavrov made a point of saying the discussions should "move this situation from this current stage of military confrontation."
Kerry responded that it was only because of the threat of a military strike that the diplomatic opening exists at all, and he said the United States will remain ready to strike.
The talks cannot be used to delay Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, Kerry said. "This is not a game," he said. "It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion. And finally there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."
Kerry said the U.S.-Russian talks will test whether the disarmament can be achieved.