Secretary of State John Kerry offered qualified praise for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Monday, after the Syrian government began efforts to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles in accordance with a U.N. resolution passed last month.
Kerry said he was “very pleased” with the developments and called the action stemming from the resolution “a terrific example of global cooperation.”
“I think it is also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly as they are supposed to,” Kerry said in Bali, Indonesia, where he is attending an APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. He went in place of President Obama, who remained in Washington as the government shutdown enters its second week.
“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 said.
The U.S. government, along with other western nations, blames Assad for a chemical attack waged in the suburbs of Damascus that killed nearly 1,500 Syrians, including more than 400 children.
International weapons inspections teams confirmed the use of sarin nerve gas in that attack.
Assad and his government’s main ally, Russia, maintain that the weapons were used by anti-government forces.
“The picture you’re painting of me as someone who kills his own people is (false),” Assad said in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine published over the weekend.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s two-and-a-half year old civil war, and more than two million have fled their homeland as refugees, with millions more displaced within Syria. The U.N. estimates that the number of Syrian refugees will exceed five million by the end of next year.
International weapons experts began destroying Syria’s chemical arsenal on Sunday, in accordance with the Nov. 1 deadline set by the U.N. last month to eliminate the government’s ability to manufacture the weapons. The U.N. mandate set an aggressive one-year goal for the complete destruction or removal of the chemical stockpiles from Syria.
In an interview with Turkey’s Halk TV last week, Assad demurred on whether he would seek another seven-year term when his expires next year, but said, “If I have a feeling that the Syrian people want me to be president in the coming period, I will run for the post. If the answer is no, I will not run and don’t see a problem in that.”
Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, though he stressed that the purpose of potential U.S.-led military strikes would not be regime change. After months of delay, the U.S. began sending small arms, vehicles and medical supplies to bolster the rebel forces.
In remarks to press on the sidelines of the Bali economic summit, Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov expressed optimism about a peace conference scheduled for mid-November in Geneva. The Syrian government has agreed to attend, according to Lavrov, who urged the U.S. and other supporters to bring a rebel coalition to the negotiating table.