Crisis diplomacy 101: the Kerry-Lavrov Syria meeting

Intense negotiations are under way at the United Nations about the content of an agreement on Syria, and when the five permanent members of the Security Council (the U.S., U.K, France, China, Russia) sat down Wednesday, they were "walking on eggshells," a diplomat involved in the meetings said.

"We are not going line-by-line" through the draft resolution floated by the French and outlined by their foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, the diplomat said. "We were discussing concepts, because the fundamentals have been agreed to, but how and if we get there is still very shaky."

After the idea of securing Syria's chemical weapons was agreed to, most recently by President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, the idea was suggested in passing by Secretary of State John Kerry, endorsed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and later, the Syrian regime.

The French took the lead in putting together what would constitute U.N. action. As such, the "deal," as sketched out by Fabius, has several elements.

It would be detailed in a U.N. Security Council Resolution, under Chapter VII of the world body's charter, which authorizes the use of force. The accord would include Syria disclosing the specifics of its chemical-weapons stockpiles, allowing those weapons to be placed under international supervision and control and their ultimate dismantling, Syria becoming a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which monitors compliance, a condemnation of the August 21 chemical weapons attack allegedly committed by the Assad government, a referral to the International Criminal Court of those responsible for the attack, and a warning to Syria of serious consequences if it were to breach the terms of the Resolution.

After seeing the French draft, Russia called emergency consultations, then abruptly cancelled them, and Kerry was dispatched to meet with Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday and Friday in the hopes of returning with agreement next week -- in time to also be able to consider the U.N. weapons inspectors' report on what they found in their recent trip to Syria.

The micro-summit of Kerry and Lavrov gives diplomacy a shot at working. Mr. Obama is holding out the threat of a strike, unpopular as it is at home, and Putin is in a position to negotiate -- rather than just veto -- U.N. action.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, "The credible threat of U.S. military force brought us to this diplomatic opening, more opening with Russia in the last two days than the last two years."


Chemical weapons stockpiles

Syria has agreed to place its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and ultimately dismantle them. As far as the U.S., U.K., France and the U.N. Secretary General are concerned, that means the U.N. and the OPCW (their relationship was consummated by a General Assembly Resolution in 2001) supervise and control the weapons. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, asked if the U.N. would handle the international supervision envisioned by the agreement, said his boss has "consistently called for Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and to fully abide by its responsibility to maintain the physical security of any chemical weapon stockpiles in its possession."

Dismantling of the weapons is another issue.

U.N. resolution or non-binding agreement?

The assumption of the U.S., U.K. and France was that the agreement would be in the form of a U.N. resolution. But Russia prefers a non-enforcement statement of principles like a Presidential Statement, or "PRST," which must be agreed to by all 15 members of the Council.

Use of force

The Western powers among the Security Council's permanent members -- France, the U.S. and the U.K. -- want a resolution under Chapter VII, which authorizes the use of force; Russia has suggested either a presidential statement or a resolution under Chapter VI, which mandates the peaceful dispute of settlements -- if there is a formal resolution at all. "We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement," Putin wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday.

Accountability and the International Criminal Court

Russia was content with the limited agreement on the securing of chemical weapons and rejects assigning blame for the August 21 attack or referring the issue to the International Criminal Court ("ICC"). Here, the Russians are closer to the U.S. position, which is "lukewarm" about including an ICC provision. Defending the use of its veto on Syria, Putin said, "The United Nations' founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America's consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter."

Both Mr. Obama and Putin will send their messages to Geneva. If the negotiations find common ground, a program will begin to secure Syria's chemical weapons. And if the U.S.- Russia "reset" finally begins, the upside could be a Geneva meeting on a transition in Syria, overall.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.