As a Russian proposal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons began to take shape, the White House eased off the gas Tuesday in its drive for congressional approval to strike the Middle Eastern country.
But proving that nothing will come easy in resolving the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it deemed as “unacceptable” a French proposal — also backed by some U.S. lawmakers — asking the United Nations Security Council to declare Syria responsible for an August 21 chemical attack that U.S. official says killed more than 1,400 people.
According to Syrian state TV, Syria on Tuesday accepted Russia’s proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry floated the idea in what appeared to be an off-the-cuff comment suggesting it would be the only way for Syria to avoid a punishing Western military strike.
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the country was ready to disclose the location of its chemical weapons, halt production and show facilities to representatives of Russia, the United Nations and other states, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergery Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia is working on a “workable, clear, specific plan” and said it would be presented soon.
While U.S. officials said Tuesday that they remain leery of a possible delaying tactic by Syria and its Russian allies, a White House official speaking on background said the proposal was intriguing enough to back down from its urgent calls for a quick vote on a congressional use-of-force resolution targeting Syria.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Kerry said the United States would look forward to the Russian plan but will demand that it be brought forward and implemented quickly.
“We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long,” he said.
And despite the apparently reduced urgency from the White House, congressional allies said Congress needs to back up the diplomats with a show of force.
“The only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that President Obama has made it plain and clear that the United States will act if we must,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “Our credible threat of force has made these diplomatic discussions with Syria possible. And the United States shouldn’t withdraw from the direction we are taking as a country.”
U.N. Security Council to meet
The next phase of the debate will play out Tuesday afternoon in New York, where France and Russia said they would offer proposals for a chemical weapons surrender to the Security Council. The world body called an emergency closed-door meeting for 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Lavrov told his French counterpart Tuesday that his country wouldn’t stand for any resolution blaming the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons. Syria is a longtime Russian ally, and Russian officials have argued, as have Syrian officials, that rebel forces could have staged the August 21 attack.
France is proposing to make such a request, as are some U.S. lawmakers who are working to draft an alternative resolution that would call for a U.N. resolution blaming the attack on the Syrian government and set a deadline for it to hand over its chemical weapons.
Otherwise, the draft U.S. Senate proposal would authorize use of military force punishing Syria.
Moallem said Tuesday that his country had agreed to the Russian proposal after what Interfax quoted him as calling “a very fruitful round of talks” with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, on Monday.
Despite the lack of details, the idea was gaining traction around the world. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed support for the concept. Tuesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said it would safeguard stability in the region. Syrian ally Iran welcomed the proposal, and Germany expressed interest.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France will not accept delays in the transfer.
“We need quick results,” Fabius said.
European Union Foreign Affairs Secretary Catherine Ashton said she supported the French plan to bring the issue to the Security Council, saying the proposal “now needs to be fully worked up as quickly as possible.”
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a proponent of a military strike on Syria, said the idea was worth exploring.
“I’m very, very skeptical,” he said on CNN’s “New Day.” “But the fact is, you can’t pass up this opportunity — if it is one.”
McCain is one of the key players crafting the Senate resolution, which would be an alternative to the use-of-force resolution proposed by the administration. It would allow the president to deploy U.S. forces against Syria if the United Nations doesn’t pass a resolution that condemns the attack, says it was “committed by the Syrian regime” and sets a deadline to hand over the weapons.
The senators have not decided whether the resolution would include limits on the use of U.S. force, such as sending troops to the country.
The Russian proposal surfaced publicly Monday, when Kerry — responding to a reporter asking what Syria could do to stop a U.S. attack — suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
“He isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.
His spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, sought to roll back the comments, saying the secretary was simply responding to a “hypothetical.”
But it turns out Russian President Vladimir Putin brought the idea up to Obama last week, a senior administration official said Monday night. Kerry and Lavrov have also been discussing ways for Moscow to get involved for more than a year, the official said. But U.S. officials didn’t realize how serious Russia was until Lavrov seized on Kerry’s comment on Monday, the official said.
Monday night, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Obama called the idea a “potentially positive development.”
But he also said the idea could simply be a stalling tactic, and said he woild continue to press his case for military action. He is scheduled to address the nation Tuesday night.
“If we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference,” Obama said Monday. “On the other hand, if we don’t maintain and move forward without a credible threat of military pressure, I don’t think we’ll actually get the kind of agreement I’d like to see.”
The opposition Free Syrian Army urged the world not to buy into the idea of transferring control of the chemical weapons, which it called a trick.
“Here we go again with the regime trying to buy more time in order to keep on the daily slaughter against our innocent civilians and to fool the world,” said Louay al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the group.