BEIRUT: U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to pull back from the brink Monday, describing as “potentially positive” a Russian offer to work with Damascus to put its chemical weapons under international control.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” he told “NBC Nightly News” in an interview Monday.
“This represents a potentially positive development,” Obama said, adding that Secretary of State John Kerry would explore with Russia how serious the offer is.
Obama is struggling to rally Congress behind military action in Syria, but a throwaway suggestion from his secretary of state led to a dramatic day of rapid diplomatic developments.
Kerry was quick to dismiss as hypothetical his own comment that Syrian President Bashar Assad could avert U.S. strikes by surrendering his chemical arsenal to international control.
But Assad’s ally Russia quickly turned it into a firm proposal that was swiftly welcomed by Damascus and echoed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
Rebels fighting Assad’s forces on the ground, where hundreds are being killed by conventional bullets and explosives every week, dismissed any such weapons transfer as impossible to police and a decoy to frustrate U.S. plans to attack.
Kerry later called Lavrov to tell him that while his remarks had been rhetorical and the United States was not going to “play games,” if there was a serious proposal, then Washington would take a look at it, a senior U.S. official said.
Obama has argued that Assad, fighting to continue his family’s four-decade rule in a civil war well into its third year, must be punished for what Washington says was a poison gas attack on rebel areas that killed over 1,400 people on Aug. 21.
The president surprised friends and foes alike by turning to Congress for approval, delaying any U.S. response.
Asked by a reporter during a visit to London whether there was anything Assad’s government could do or offer to stop a U.S. military strike, Secretary of State Kerry answered:
“Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which Assad denies his forces used.
Less than five hours later, Lavrov said he had put what sounded like Kerry’s proposal to his visiting Syrian counterpart during talks in Moscow. And Walid al-Moallem said Damascus welcomed the Russian initiative – while not spelling out whether Syria would, or even could, comply.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has blocked U.N. action against Assad and says Obama would be guilty of unlawful aggression if he launches an attack without U.N. approval.
Lavrov said: “If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons ... makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus.”
Lavrov said Russia was also urging Syria to eventually destroy the weapons and become a full member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Shortly afterward, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took up the same theme, saying that he might ask the Security Council to end its “embarrassing paralysis” over Syria and agree to act.
Asked about Lavrov’s proposal, Ban said: “I’m considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed.”
Ban has warned against any action that lacks the approval of the world security body could worsen the situation in Syria.
Syria is believed to have large stocks of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agents – the actual use of which is banned by a 1925 treaty to which Damascus is a signatory.
White House officials made clear their skepticism of the workability of the Russian proposal. Syria is a battleground where access for foreign experts would be dangerous. And it would be very hard to verify whether all sites had been sealed.
Years of cat-and-mouse maneuvring between U.N. weapons inspectors and Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq show how difficult it might be to enforce any arms control orders on a timetable that would satisfy Washington in the midst of a war.
Qassim Saadeddine, a rebel commander in northern Syria and a spokesman for the Supreme Military Council of Assad’s opponents, said: “It is a trap and deceitful maneuver by the Damascus regime and will do nothing to help the situation.
“They have tons of weapons hidden that would be nearly impossible for international inspectors to find.”
Amr al-Azm, a Syrian opposition figure and professor of history at Ohio State University, told The Daily Star “the opposition are the absolute losers in all of this.”
“The regime gets out of an impending strike, and the Russians will be able to say they were supporting diplomacy all along. The U.S. will try to present this as a personal triumph, they will try and show this was Obama’s initiative all along in talks behind the scenes,” he said.
The Syrian regime, he added, would use this time to consolidate control on the ground. “This smacks of Saddam in 1991. [The Russians] will spin this out for as long as possible. It’s classic Russian politics, reel it out and buy time.
The feasibility of removing the regime’s entire chemical weapons stockpile in just one week was also laughable, he said. “You can’t destroy chemical weapons stocks in one week, that’s just absurd.”
But, he added, as long as the threat of a military strike remained, “It could still have an impact in terms of changing the balance of power on the ground,” as it could damage regime morale.
Putin, however, would see major diplomatic advantages to any plan that bolstered Russia’s role in brokering international settlements and thwarted strikes in which Obama may have French military support.
The Russian proposal won a cautious welcome in public from both the British and French governments, Obama’s main European allies in the crisis.
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the United States would take “a hard look” at the idea but that Congress should still approve a military action. “It’s important to note that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the president is exerting,” he said. “So it’s even more important that we don’t take the pressure off and that Congress gives the president the authority he’s requested.”
A Senate vote set for Wednesday was delayed to study the Russian proposal.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Americans’ opposition to a U.S. military strike against Syria was increasing. The poll, conducted Sept. 5 to 9, indicated that 63 percent of Americans opposed intervening in Syria, up from 53 percent in a survey that ended Aug. 30. About 16 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should get involved – down from 20 percent on Aug. 30.
Tapping into concerns in the West about the role of Islamist militants in the rebel forces, Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem said: “We are asking ourselves how Obama can ... support those who in their time blew up the World Trade Center in New York.”
Assad himself warned of reprisals – if he were attacked Americans could “expect every action,” he told CBS television.
Repercussions “may take different forms” and could include “instability and the spread of terrorism all over the region that will influence the West directly.”