GENEVA/UNITED NATIONS — Diplomatic efforts toward placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control intensified on Wednesday and U.N. investigators concluded Syrian government forces were almost certainly responsible for two May massacres that killed up to 450 civilians in the bloody civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone one day before they meet in Geneva to try to forge a joint strategy on eliminating Syria's chemical arsenal.
In New York, envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member states — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — were due to discuss a French draft resolution. It would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad an ultimatum to give up his chemical weapons arsenal or face punitive measures, an approach which Russia rejects.
Overhanging the talks in Geneva will be Russia's opposition to a continued threat of military action that the United States says is needed to ensure Syria complies.
President Barack Obama said in a speech on Tuesday that he had asked the Congress to put off a vote on his request to authorize the use of military action to let diplomacy play out.
Obama cited "encouraging signs" in recent days, in part because of the U.S. threat of military action to punish Assad for what the United States says was the Syrian government's use of poison gas to kill 1,400 civilians in Damascus on Aug. 21.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the President’s speech Tuesday night raised many doubts about the administration.
“In reflecting on the President’s speech .... and the many briefings I have received on Syria, despite my best attempts to discern it, I am left with the conclusion that the administration’s strategy on Syria is incoherent and inconsistent. While I believe we have important strategic interests in the region, I could not at this time support committing U.S. military force in Syria in the absence of a well thought out strategy and plan to achieve definable military objectives that are consistent with our national security interests and those of our allies.”
Kerry planned to meet U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi while in Geneva, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. At least two days of U.S.-Russian talks are expected there, possibly more, Psaki said.
Russia has given the United States its plan for placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under international control and intends to discuss it at the Geneva meeting, the Interfax news agency cited a Russian source as saying.
Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer during the civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011, delivering arms and - with China - blocking three U.N. resolutions meant to pressure Assad. Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons.
In a reminder of the mounting atrocities committed in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, a report by a U.N. commission of inquiry released in Geneva documented eight mass killings, attributing all but one to government forces.
The report said both government and rebel fighters had committed war crimes including murder, hostage-taking and shelling of civilians.
The commission, led by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, urged the U.N. Security Council to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The killings in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa, two pockets of rebel sympathizers surrounded by villages loyal to Assad on the outskirts of the town of Banias, did not involve fighting with rebels and appeared designed to send a message of deterrence.
The Syria conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad and descended into a civil war in which mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are pitted against Assad's forces, who are backed by Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Hezbollah.
In Moscow, Russia's parliament urged the United States not to strike Syria, saying in a unanimous declaration that military action could be a "crime against the Syrian people."
The non-binding declaration by the State Duma, the lower chamber dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, echoed the vociferous opposition by President Vladimir Putin to U.S. military action.
The Duma expressed support for Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical arsenal under international control, which Putin said on Tuesday would only succeed if the United States and its allies abandoned plans for possible military action.
The French government said it remained determined to punish Assad over chemical weapons if diplomacy fails, and said a military strike was still possible.
The violence continued inside Syria. Fighters from an al Qaeda-linked rebel group killed 12 members of the minority Alawite sect in central Syria after seizing their village, an opposition monitoring group said.
Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shi'ite Islam and have been increasingly targeted by radical fighters among the Sunni Muslim-dominated opposition in the 2-1/2 year revolt against Assad, himself an Alawite.
Under four decades of Assad family rule, Alawites have made up most of the political and military elite in Syria. The rise of hardline Islamists in the rebellion and the possibility of major attacks on minorities like Alawites have contributed to a Western hesitancy to intervene directly in the conflict.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on the United States and Russia to address the obstacles to delivering aid in Syria at their talks on Thursday.
Syrian government forces and rebels are both preventing medical assistance in particular from reaching the sick and wounded, ICRC President Peter Maurer said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept up pressure for action, saying Syria must be stripped of its chemical weapons and that the international community must make sure those who use weapons of mass destruction pay a price.
Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, which is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.
"The message that is received in Syria will be received loudly in Iran," Netanyahu said.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that a U.S. promise to pursue diplomacy to remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria was "serious," the state news agency IRNA reported.
"I am hopeful that the United States' new attitude to Syria is serious and not a game with the media. For weeks they have threatened war against the people of this region for the benefit of the Zionists (Israel)," he said during a public address.