BALI, Indonesia — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the United States and Russia are "very pleased" with the progress made so far in destroying Syria's chemical weapons stocks. And, he offered some rare, if qualified, U.S. praise for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Kerry, speaking at a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said the Assad regime deserves credit for its speedy compliance thus far with the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the elimination of the weapons. However, Kerry stressed that Assad is not off the hook yet and needs to continue to comply with U.N. demands.
"Let me be crystal clear," Kerry said, "we're very pleased with the pace of what has happened with respect to chemical weapons." He noted that on Sunday, just over a week after the Security Council and the international chemical weapons watchdog acted, experts had started the process of destroying the stockpiles.
"I think that was a terrific example of global cooperation, of multilateral efforts to accomplish an accepted goal and they have moved with equal speed to get on the ground in Syrian and begin the operations," he said.
"I think it is also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly as they are supposed to," Kerry said. "We hope that will continue. Now, I am not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road. But it is a good beginning and we should welcome a good beginning."
Kerry and Lavrov met Monday on the sidelines of an economic summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. Their meeting represented the first high-level talks between the two nations since they sealed a deal to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons.
International disarmament inspectors began work Sunday to destroy Syria's estimated 1,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons. They're working against a Nov. 1 deadline set by the United Nations last month to destroy the Assad government's capability to produce the weapons.
Lavrov said the Assad regime, a friend of Russia's, was cooperating fully. He made the point that the Western- and Arab-backed opposition must also comply and must ensure that chemical weapons not fall into the hands of extremists. Russia has accused the opposition of being behind an Aug 21 chemical weapons attack that most countries blame on the regime.
"The responsibility is not only on the Syrian government, but also on the opposition and all the states in this sphere should of course not allow these weapons to fall into the hands of non-state actors," Lavrov said.
Both Kerry and Lavrov said they continued to make progress on preparations for an international conference to help set up a transitional government for Syria. The United Nations has said it would like to host the meeting in Geneva in mid-November. The meeting has been repeatedly delayed but Kerry and Lavrov said they hoped the rough date would hold.
Lavrov said the Syrian government has agreed to participate in the conference and urged the U.S. and other supporters of the opposition to convince Assad's foes to attend. The opposition is splintered and has been unable so far to produce a delegation that could go to Geneva.
Kerry and Lavrov also discussed Iran and its nuclear program. Officials from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., China, the Russian Federation, France and the United Kingdom — and Germany will meet with representatives from Iran in Geneva on Oct. 15 to hold renewed talks on Iran's nuclear program.
The two men each expressed hope that the meeting could produce some progress on resolving international concerns that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and says it is enriching uranium to levels needed for medical isotopes and reactor fuel.
In addition to their discussions on Syria and Iran, Kerry and Lavrov also signed an agreement to modernize a Cold War-era nuclear threat reduction program between Washington and Moscow.
Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers (NRRCs). The Agreement was signed on the margins of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia.
The deal, initially signed in 1987, established Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in the two countries' capitals that were charged with sharing real time information about atomic weapons to verify compliance with various arms control agreements.