MOSCOW — A seemingly offhand suggestion by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avert a US attack by relinquishing its chemical weapons received an almost immediate welcome from Syria, Russia, the United Nations, a key US ally and even some Republicans on Monday as a possible way to avoid a major international military showdown in the Syria crisis. A White House official said the administration was taking a “hard look” at the idea.
While there was no indication that Kerry was searching for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis in making his comment, Russia — the Syrian government’s most powerful supporter — seized on it as a way of proposing international control of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The reactions appeared to reflect a broad international desire to de-escalate the atmosphere of impending confrontation even as President Barack Obama was lobbying heavily at home to garner congressional endorsement of a military strike.
Kerry’s suggestion — and the Russian and Syrian response — also seemed to represent the first possible point of agreement over how to address the chemical weapons issue that has threatened to turn the Syria conflict, now in its third year, into a regional war.
A top White House national security official, Tony Blinken, later suggested to reporters in Washington that the Obama administration was not dismissing such a possible solution.
“We’re going to take a hard look at this,” Blinken said. “We’ll talk to the Russians about it.”
Asked at a news conference in London if there were steps the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, could take to avoid a US-led attack, Kerry said, “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.” He immediately dismissed the possibility that Assad would or could comply, saying, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
However, in Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who was meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in response that Russia would join any effort to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them.
Lavrov appeared at a previously unscheduled briefing only hours after Kerry made his statement in London, taking Kerry’s comments as a way to suggest a possible compromise.
“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”
Al-Moallem said later in a statement that his government welcomed the Russian proposal, Russia’s Interfax News Agency reported, in what appeared to be the first acknowledgment by the Syrian government that it even possessed chemical weapons. The Syrian government has historically neither confirmed nor denied possessing such weapons.
In quick succession, the idea of sequestering Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was also endorsed by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and the US secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Ban said he might propose a formal resolution to the Security Council, which has been paralyzed over how to deal with the Syria crisis from the beginning.
Cameron told lawmakers in London that if Syria handed over its chemical weapons arsenal for destruction under international supervision, “it would be hugely welcome,” news agencies in Britain reported.
In Washington, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who heads the House Intelligence Committee, expressed cautious support for Lavrov’s response.
“Just the fact the Russians have moved tells me having this debate on military action is a having a positive outcome,” Rogers said in a telephone interview.
Rogers said Congress should still vote to support a resolution backing US military action as a means of increasing US leverage on the Russians.
“So far, the Russian rhetoric does not match their activity on the ground,” Rogers said, alluding to the Russian supply of arms to the Syrian army. “They’re going to have to prove they mean it.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted Kerry’s suggestion, but also endorsed President Obama’s attempt to win approval for a military strike.Continued...