WASHINGTON – In a rapid and remarkable chain of events, Syria welcomed the idea of turning over all its chemical weapons for destruction on Monday, and President Barack Obama, though expressing deep skepticism, declared it a “potentially positive development” that could head off the threats of U.S. airstrikes that have set the world on edge.
The administration pressed ahead in its efforts to persuade Congress to authorize a military strike, and Obama said the day’s developments were doubtless due in part to the “credible possibility” of that action. He stuck to his plan to address the nation tonight, while the Senate Democratic leader postponed a vote on authorization.
The sudden developments broke into the open when Russia’s foreign minister, seizing on what appeared at the time to be an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, appeared in Moscow alongside his Syrian counterpart and proposed the chemical weapons turnover and destruction. The Syrian foreign minister quickly embraced the idea, and before long U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did, too.
Obama, who appeared Monday evening in interviews on six TV networks, said the idea actually had been broached in his 20-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama said he directed Kerry to have more conversations with the Russians and “run this to ground.”
The president said he would “absolutely” halt a U.S. military strike if Syria’s stockpiles were successfully secured, though he remained skeptical about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s willingness to carry out the steps needed.
“My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News. “If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference.”
He cast Russia’s proposal as a direct result of the pressure being felt by Syria because of the threat of a U.S. strike and warned that he would not allow the idea to be used as a stalling tactic.
“I don’t think that we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike, and I don’t think now is the time for us to let up on that,” he said.
Still, the White House has had scant success in persuading members of Congress – including Democrats – to support the idea of military action. Senators continued to announce their opposition throughout the day.
The proposal from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came just hours after Kerry told reporters in London that Assad could avoid a U.S. attack and resolve the crisis surrounding the use of chemical weapons by surrendering control of “every single bit” of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
The State Department sought to tamp down the potential impact of Kerry’s comments by calling them a “rhetorical” response to a hypothetical question and not “a proposal.” But their importance became clearer as the day progressed.
Kerry spoke by phone with Lavrov shortly after making his comments in London, and officials familiar with the call said Lavrov had told Kerry that he had seen the remarks and would be issuing a public statement. Kerry told Lavrov that his comments were not a proposal but the U.S. would be willing to review a serious plan, the officials said. They stressed that he made clear that Lavrov could not present the idea as a joint U.S.-Russian proposal.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately embraced the plan. And then in quick succession, the U.N. chief did, too, British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was worth exploring, the French foreign ministry said it deserved close examination and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said any move by Syria to surrender its chemical weapons would be an “important step.” Clinton, in contrast with the White House and State Department, credited Kerry and Russia jointly for the proposal.
Obama still faces a decidedly uphill fight to win congressional authorization for the use of force – and serious doubts by the American public – and Monday’s developments, planned or not, could provide him with a way out of a messy political and foreign policy bind.
Yet, the White House said it does not want Congress to delay votes on use-of-force resolutions while awaiting decisions on whether to proceed with transferring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
In an interview with Charlie Rose that was broadcast Monday on “CBS This Morning,” Assad denied responsibility for the Aug. 21 attack, accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a “single shred of evidence,” and warned that airstrikes against his nation could bring retaliation. Pressed on what that might include, Assad responded, “I’m not fortune teller.”
Later Monday, Syria’s foreign minister, meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, addressed the idea of getting rid of any chemical weapons.
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” al-Moallem said.