US President Barack Obama has described Russia's offer to impound Syria's chemical weapons as a "potential breakthrough." Obama said he would be willing to postpone a military strike if Syria relinquished its stockpile.
Speaking to ABC's Diane Sawyer on Monday Obama said he would "absolutely" put any US military strike on pause should Syria agree to a Russian plan for it to place its chemical weapons under international control.
"My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem," Obama said. "If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference."
The president gave interviews to six television networks on Monday as part of a fierce push to win backing from Congress ahead of a vote on military strikes against Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons. He instead found himself focusing on the surprise diplomatic initiative announced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hours earlier.
Obama tentatively welcomed Russia's proposal as a "potentially significant breakthrough," in his interview with NBC News. He emphasized however that a limited US-strike was not off the table due to concerns over whether the Syrian regime would agree to Russia's terms.
"We have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them [the Syrian regime] operate over the last couple of years."
He noted that the fact there was any talk of a diplomatic way out of the crisis was a direct result of US threats of military action.
"I have to say that it's unlikely we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat," Obama told CNN.
The president said he had tasked US Secretary of State John Kerry with exploring the proposal with Russia. He added that he had already discussed the possibility of Syria relinquishing control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at last week's G20 summit in Saint Petersburg.
A Senate test vote to authorize US-led intervention had been scheduled to take place on Wednesday. Late on Monday, however, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was delaying the vote as lawmakers evaluate the Russian plan.
The vote is still expected this week, with a more contentious vote to be held later in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Kerry remarks opens door to Syria solution
Russia's surprise offer emerged after Kerry gave voice to the possible plan in an apparent throwaway remark in London. Kerry told reporters early Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could resolve the crisis by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community to the end of the week. The State Department later sought to limit the impact of his comments by describing them as a "rhetorical" response to a hyperthetical question and not "a proposal."
They were quickly pounced upon by Lavrov, however, who promised to push Russia's ally to place its chemical weapons under international control. Following a meeting with Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, in Moscow, Lavrov said the arsenal could then be destroyed in order to avert the threat of US strikes. Al-Moallem immediately expressed his support for the plan.
Syria welcomed the Russian initiative "on the basis of our leadership's commitment to protecting the lives of its citizens and our country's security, and its faith in the wisdom of the Russian leadership and their effort to prevent the US aggression against our people," Al-Moallem said.
Hours later Russia's offer had been endorced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who urged Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile.
"I am 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 said, adding that Assad's regime would "first and foremost … agree positively to this."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron also spoke positively of the proposal.
"Today there were very interesting proposals about the chemical weapons," Merkel said told a forum broadcast nationwide.
"If this is intended to lead to action and not to just play for time, then Germany will push hard for this path to be further pursued."
While broadly welcoming it, Cameron also expressed concern it could just be "a distraction technique."
Assad warns of repercussions
According to US intelligence a chemical attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on August 21 left more than 1,429 people dead, including more than 400 children.
John Kerry said Monday he had "real evidence" Assad's regime had been responsible for the incident.
President Assad has fiercely denied responsibly. In an interview aired on the "This Morning" program on American network CBS on Monday he warned of "repercussions" in the face of US strikes.
"You're going to pay the price if you're not wise. There are going to be repercussions," he said. "It's an area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything."
He compared Kerry's claims to that of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who cited evidence of weapons of mass destruction when the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003.
"How can you talk about what happened if you don't have evidence?" Assad said in the interview, in which he spoke English. "We're not like the American administration, we're not like the social media administration or government. We're the government that deals with evidence."
ccp/kms (AFP, Reuters)