US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have begun talks in Geneva aimed at eliminating Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. President Putin has again urged the US not to strike Syria.
John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov opened talks in Geneva on Thursday to discuss a plan put forward by Moscow to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
Syria accepted Russia's plan earlier this week, prompting US President Barack Obama to call off an imminent vote in Congress authorizing military action and to make a renewed push towards a diplomatic solution.
A Western-backed Syrian rebel group has, however, criticized the Russian proposal, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be forced to answer for his actions.
"We ask that the international community not be content with withdrawing chemical weapons, which are a criminal instrument, but to hold the perpetrator accountable and prosecute him at the International Criminal Court," Supreme Military Council leader Salim Idriss said in a video statement posted online.
The US believes President Assad's regime was behind a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb on August 21, which it claims killed more that 1,400 people. The Syrian government has denied responsibility.
Thursday's meeting, which diplomats in Geneva could continue into the weekend, follows a day of intense diplomatic negotiations aimed at agreeing on an international strategy to enact Russia's plan. Envoys of the five veto-wielding world powers - France, China, Russia, Britain, and the US - had held talks in New York, with conflicts remaining over the terms of a UN resolution.
France, backed by the UK and France proposed a binding resolution in the UN Security Council on Wednesday that would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government 15 days to declare all of its chemical weapon stockpiles for disposal soon after. It demands that Syrian authorities allow the United Nations to investigate all chemical weapons declared and allow investigations into allegations of previous chemical attacks.
The draft, which condemns the August 21 attack, places the blame firmly with the Syrian regime and threatens severe punitive measures if Syria fails to comply.
Russia has dismissed the resolution as "unacceptable" and is seeking a non-binding declaration.
Putin issues stark warning
Hours before the Geneva talks were due to get underway, the New York Times published an opinion article on its website written by Russian President Vladimir Putin, warning against a US military strike on Syria. Putin said such an act would risk unleashing a wave of terror.
"The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders," Putin wrote.
"A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
Putin also warned that the UN could suffer the same fate as its precursor, the League of Nations, if it is undermined by a US strike without UN Security Council authorization.
"No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization," he added.
Putin also reiterated assertions that the August 21 attacks was likely the work of opposition forces seeking to provoke foreign intervention.
While Obama has put a vote in Congress over military action on pause while the latest proposals are explored, he made clear in a televised address on Tuesday that the US was still prepared to act should diplomacy fail.
Russia has remained a key ally of the Assad regime during the Syrian conflict. According to the United Nations more than 100,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in March 2011.
ccp/kms (AFP, Reuters, dpa)