Crucial talks on ending Syrian control of its chemical weapons began Thursday in Geneva with the top negotiators -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov -- offering similar goals but different ideas on how to reach them.
"This is not a game," Kerry said, making clear that a U.S. threat to attack Syria for allegedly gassing its own people remained an option if the negotiations failed to prove Syria and its ally Russia were serious about the Syrian regime handing over its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Any agreement reached must be "comprehensive," "verifiable," "credible" and "able to be implemented in a timely fashion," Kerry said, adding that "there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."
Lavrov, speaking in Russian, called for following established rules and protocols in the process for Syria to join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and said that a solution "will make unnecessary" a military strike on Syria.
Also Thursday, Syrian U.N. Ambassdor Bashar Ja'afari said his country formally asked to join the chemical weapons convention that bans such arms.
However, the challenge facing negotiators was made clear by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who told Russian TV that his country would only agree to turn over its chemical weapons when the United States drops its threat to attack.
"This does not mean that Syria will sign these documents, carry out the conditions and that's it," al-Assad said, referring to the global convention against chemical weapons. "This bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria."
In the interview, al-Assad said joining the convention gives Syria a standard 30 days to provide information on its stockpiles to the international community. Kerry appeared to reject that in his opening remarks for the talks with Lavrov.
Referring to al-Assad's comment, Kerry said: "We believe there is nothing standard about this process" because of the August 21 chemical weapons attack in suburban Damascus that the United States estimates killed more than 1,400 people.
Reiterating the U.S. contention that al-Assad's regime was responsible, Kerry said "we have in no uncertain terms made it clear that we cannot allow that to happen again."
The planned two days of meetings in Geneva by full diplomatic teams, including weapons experts, were considered a litmus test by President Barack Obama's administration for whether Russia is serious in pushing its ally Syria to give up hundreds of tons of chemical arms.
Otherwise, Obama argues for targeted military strikes intended to inhibit Syria's ability to use its chemical weapons and deter it from considering doing so.
Skepticism that Russia plan may be stall tactic
Kerry first publicly broached the idea of Syria turning over control of its chemical weapons, responding to a journalist's question Monday that such a move would prevent a U.S. attack.
In a move that appeared to catch the Obama administration by surprise, Russia then formally proposed putting the Syrian chemical arsenal under international control and al-Assad's regime said it agreed.
The ongoing U.S.-Russia negotiations in Geneva aimed to work out details on taking control of Syria's chemical weapons, setting the stage for a related U.N. Security Council resolution.
However, Russia's steadfast opposition to any U.N. action on Syria raises questions about whether the talks in Geneva are merely a stall tactic to put off the U.S. attack Obama is threatening.
As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has so far blocked U.N. action sought by the United States and European allies against al-Assad's regime over chemical weapons.
That track record fuels questions in the United States about the sincerity of the new Russian proposal for Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons, with concerns it is a stall tactic to put off a U.S. attack or some other form of international response.
Kerry told Syrian opposition leaders Thursday that he entered the talks with Lavrov "from a position of skepticism," said a senior State Department official on condition of not being identified.
That sentiment was echoed by House Speaker John Boehner in Washington.
"I have doubts about the motives of the Russians and Assad," Boehner said.
U.N. report on Syria coming
Obama had tried to put together a NATO coalition to attack Syria. But he ran into roadblocks, like the vote by Britain's parliament -- a normally reliable party -- opting not to participate.
He then asked Congress to authorize a military response in Syria, but appeared in danger of losing that vote until the Russian proposal emerged Monday to provide a diplomatic opening.