U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the task of developing a credible plan to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile "exceedingly difficult." UPI/Mike Theiler | License Photo
GENEVA, Switzerland, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were "working hard to find the common ground" on Syria's chemical arms.
"I will say on behalf of the United States that President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is likewise," Kerry said Friday in a joint statement with Lavrov and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during the second day of discussions in Geneva, Switzerland. "We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen and we discussed some of the homework that we both need to do."
Kerry said he and Lavrov agreed to meet in New York when the U.N. General Assembly convenes later in September to see if a date for an international conference on Syria can be scheduled, noting finding time for the conference "will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here in the next day, hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons.
U.S. and Russian leaders "deeply concerned about the death toll and destruction, the acts on both sides, all sides that are creating more and more refugees, more and more of the humanitarian catastrophe," Kerry said. "And we are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world."
Lavrov expressed gratitude to Brahimi for his insight and for the suggestions he made during the two days of discussions in Geneva, "which we will be entertaining as we move forward parallel with the work on chemical weapons."
"Now that the Assad government joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, we have to engage our professionals together with the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Organization, as we agreed with the United Nations, to design a road which would make sure that this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical," Lavrov said.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say a Syrian military unit at the core of President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons program has been moving stocks of poison gases and munitions to as many as 50 sites to make them more difficult to track, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The redirection of chemical weapons by Syria's elite Unit 450 could cause difficulties for any U.S. bombing campaign in Syria and raises questions about implementation of the Russian proposal that calls for the regime to surrender control of its stockpile, the officials said.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies said they still think they know where most of the chemical arms are located, but are less confident than they were six months ago, U.S. officials said.
The officials said movements occurred as recently as last week after Obama said he was preparing to launch a military strike over evidence that shows the Syrian government gassed Damascus suburbs Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children.
On Thursday, Assad again denied involvement in a chemical attack but he said his government was prepared to sign an agreement banning the use of chemical weapons.
U.S. and European intelligence agencies said Unit 450 is in charge of mixing and deploying chemical munitions, as well as providing security at chemical sites, the Journal said.
The United States estimates the Assad regime has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical and biological agents.
"That is what we know about. There might be more," a senior U.S. official told the Journal.