Opening a possible diplomatic solution to avoid a U.S. military strike, Syria’s foreign minister on Monday welcomed a suggestion floated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to move all the country’s chemical weapons under international control.
The White House said it was taking a hard look at Syria’s statement even as it redoubled efforts to sell the notion of the strike to a skeptical Congress and divided nation. It wasn’t clear whether Kerry was making an off-the-cuff remark or a genuine offer that could avert the Obama administration’s plans for an air raid, but it could offer President Barack Obama a way out of his uphill battle to get support for a strike.
A new Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, despite the Obama administration’s push to respond to chemical weapons attacks the U.S. blames on President Bashar Assad’s regime. The poll was released Monday and conducted September 6-8 by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.
Kerry said during a news conference in London that if Assad wanted to defuse the crisis, “he could turn every single bit of his chemical weapons over to the international community” within a week. But he said that Assad “isn’t about to do it.”
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem quickly agreed, at the urging of Syrian ally Russia.
“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,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said on a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov took Kerry’s proposal to al-Moallem.
Al-Moallem, however, wouldn’t give any further details in his brief statement and didn’t take any questions. It was the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons.
The Obama administration tried to quickly tamp down the notion Kerry was making an orchestrated effort with the Russians to avoid strikes. “Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
But White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. “will have to take a hard look at the Russian proposal” for turning control of Syria’s chemical weapons over to the international community. “We’re skeptical of any statements by the Syrian government given that they haven’t even declared their chemical weapons and used them in violation of international law,” Rhodes said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to immediately agree to transfer chemical weapons and chemical precursors to a safe place within the country for international destruction. Ban said he will also propose to the Security Council that it unite and demand an immediate chemical weapons transfer should U.N. inspectors conclude that such weapons were used in an attack Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus.
Assad granted an interview to American television journalist Charlie Rose to contradict the Obama administration’s accusation that his government used sarin gas in that attack, killing 1,429 people. Obama planned to press the case in a round of six interviews for Monday evening television newscasts.
Assad accused the Obama administration of spreading “lies” and said they have not presented a “single shred of evidence” to the public that his government is behind chemical weapons use. He warned an attack could bring retaliation in the volatile region.
“It’s area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything,” Assad said in an interview broadcast on “CBS This Morning.” Pressed on what those repercussions might include, Assad responded, “I’m not fortune teller.”
“If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms,” Assad said.
The White House was unmoved by Assad’s denial. “It doesn’t surprise us that someone who would kill thousands of his own people, including hundreds of children with poison gas, would also lie about it,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Kerry said he would be confident going into any courtroom with the evidence gathered by the United States that Syria’s government used chemical weapons against its people. “Words that are contradicted by fact,” Kerry said during a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, speaking to a Washington think tank Monday, argued Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a threat to U.S. national security. “Failing to respond brings us closer to the day when terrorists might gain and use chemical weapons against Americans at abroad and at home,” she said.
The White House said Monday that 14 more nations have signed on to a statement blaming Assad’s government for a chemical weapons attack and calling for a strong international response. That means the list has grown to 25 from the 11 — including the U.S. — who initially signed on. The statement was unveiled Friday at the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The statement doesn’t explicitly call for military action against Syria, but administration officials say it’s an implicit endorsement because the U.S. is publicly discussing a potential military strike.
Obama has a challenge to convince Congress to back a strike authorization, although leaders of both parties are supporting the measure. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against the plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.