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But Kerry, who met earlier Thursday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, made clear the threat remains.
"President Obama has been clear that should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons," he said. "It won't get rid of them, but it could change his willingness to use them."
Even as diplomacy took center stage, word surfaced that the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following Obama's statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels.
The U.S. is hoping that an acceptable agreement with the Russians can be part of a binding new U.N. Security Council resolution being negotiated that demands that Syria's chemical weapons be put under international control and dismantled and condemns the Aug. 21 attack that led to the current crisis. Russia has long opposed U.N. action on Syria, has vetoed three earlier resolutions and has not indicated it is willing to go along with one now.
As for arming the Syrian rebels, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration could not "detail every single type of support that we are providing to the opposition or discuss timelines for delivery, but it's important to note that both the political and the military opposition are and will be receiving this assistance."
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the CIA has arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry such as rocket-propelled grenades through a third party, presumably one of the Gulf countries that have been arming the rebels. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.
Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press that his group expected to receive weapons in the near future.
"We are cooperating with the American administration and have been receiving some logistical and technical assistance and there are commitments by the administration to arm us but until now we have not received any weapons," al-Mikdad said by telephone.
The U.S. officials said the aid has been arriving for more than a month.
The U.S. team with Kerry in Geneva includes officials who worked on inspection and removal of unconventional weapons from Libya after 2003 and in Iraq after the first Gulf War. Officials with Kerry said the teams that eventually go into Syria would have to be an international mix.
The meetings are taking place in the same hotel where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 gave Lavrov a symbolic "reset button" as a goodwill gesture and a reminder of the Obama administration's efforts to improve U.S.-Russian relations.