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Menendez: Need To Ensure Syria Plan Not 'A Stall For Time'

Robert Siegel talks with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, about the latest developments in Syria.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, how the Syria crisis looks to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That's Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program once again.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: You've described yourself as skeptical about the Russian initiative, but you've said we have to test their sincerity. How long do you think that test can last? By when do you have to see results or conclude that Moscow and Damascus flunked the test?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think that the negotiations that are underway between Secretary Kerry and the Russian foreign minister are going to be very revealing. Well, that's - probably take the next two days. I believe the U.N. weapons inspectors may very well have their report very soon, possibly very early next week. And I think the confluence of those two actions will give us a clear understanding whether we finally are at a point in which diplomacy can work.

SIEGEL: But, Senator Menendez, on Monday, John Kerry said within a week Syria should surrender all of its chemical weapons. Today he said it should be done in a timely manner. And he didn't seem to approve of Syrian President Assad's timetable, which would be that about 30 days after Syria signs the International Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would submit data about its chemical weapons. If that's not soon enough, when does this have to actually be done by?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, we have to see that this is credible, that it's verifiable and that it's not a stall for time. I mean, we are dealing with someone in Assad who, until just a few days ago, said he didn't have chemical weapons. And after years of denial, now we see he does have chemical weapons. And so the question is what is a timeframe in which the Syrians come forth, sign on to the chemical weapons treaty. And also, they know what their locations are. They know largely what their capacity of. They have their own inventory. It would probably take a hit of a key on a computer to print that out.

So I think that this is a shorter timeframe that is desirable, at least for these initial efforts, to show that there is seriousness of purpose. And that's why proceeding what I hope will be not just an agreement, but an agreement that is brought to the Security Council and there is a resolution to bind that agreement I think will be critically important as well.

SIEGEL: I'd just like to pursue your understanding and, as you say, Secretary Kerry's understanding of the Russian position on President Assad. As far as you understand it, the Russians would be prepared to dump al-Assad. You feel that - they see that as the beginning of a peach process on Syria?

MENENDEZ: Well, they see that as a negotiation in which how you would deal with Assad's departure and what is the follow on, what type of inclusive government would exist is a continuation of that discussion. So I don't think that there is a divergence there. The divergence is that Assad has not come to the conclusion that he wants to attend any such conference because he's not willing to give up power.

SIEGEL: You read Russian President Putin's op-ed in The New York Times today, in which Putin reiterates Russia's insistence that despite the intelligence that you and others have cited, it was the rebels who launched the chemical attack at the end of August. For those who were persuaded, those all over the world who might be persuaded by President Putin, is there more intelligence that might be declassified that would positively disprove the Russian account of what happened there?

MENENDEZ: There may be other information that is available whether or not it can be declassified because the risk of declassifying depending upon the nature of information and how it was achieved. But I think the case is pretty well made. And I think only President Putin in the world, and maybe the Iranians, believe that it was the rebels. Everybody else in the world believes clearly it was Assad.

SIEGEL: And just before you go, you said it would take one stroke of a - one key stroke on a computer for the Syrians to release the locations of all of their chemical weapons. Literally, how long should they have to at least push that one computer key? And if I'm still asking you this question in two weeks, have the Syrians failed to comply adequately with the pressure on them?

MENENDEZ: You know, I don't believe in creating in diplomacy artificial timelines, but I will say that in my mind, the minimal process of coming forward, agreeing to the convention against chemical weapons and producing to the U.N. a listing of what those chemical weapons are, if that cannot be achieved within that time period, then one must question the seriousness of purpose here. And when President Putin suggests that, well, you can ask Syria to unilaterally disarm, well, I didn't realize that chemical weapons, from Russia's point of view, is something that is permitted in the armament of any country.

SIEGEL: Senator Menendez, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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