Update: US weighs talk of Syria dumping chemical weapons

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.

Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday said Syrian President Bashar Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons by his forces by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week. Within hours, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed a call from Russia to place Syrian chemical arsenals under international control, though he did not mention Kerry. The public statement followed a meeting between al-Moallem and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow. Back home, U.S. officials said they would take a "hard look" at the proposal to avoid a military strike.

Highlights

Updated 6:05 p.m.: In interviews, Obama says he would halt strike if Syria gives up chemical stockpiles

The president said he would "absolutely" halt a U.S. military strike if Syria's stockpiles were successfully secured, though he remained skeptical about 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."

The suggestion to secure the chemical weapons "could potentially be a significant breakthrough," Obama told NBC News in another interview. "But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate over the last couple a years."

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 through the day.

Much of California's Congressional delegation remained skeptical of military action. Janice Hahn (D-Carson) said: "I need to be convinced that all other avenues have been explored. I’m not comfortable that the U.S. become the enforcer of international norm."

"What Assad has done and continues to do is horrific," said Ken Calvert (R-Riverside). "But I don’t see any policy, I don’t see any persistent idea to move forward to have some positive outcome. And if we’re not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to move forward.”

As for Russia's proposal for Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to international  overseers, Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) said the idea was “The best thing to come out of Russia since vodka.”

"If you’re going to punish Assad, either we blow up stuff or we give mortars to other people to blow up stuff," Sherman added. "And it’s quite possible that the second road is far more consistent with international and domestic opinion. And might just be as good a way of blowing up stuff."

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Julie Pace & Matthew Lee, Associated Press

Updated 11:01 a.m.: US weighs talk of Syria dumping chemical weapons

Syria on Monday quickly welcomed a call from Russia, its close ally, to place Syrian chemical arsenals under international control, then destroy them to avert a U.S. strike, but did not offer a time frame or any other specifics.

The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared to mark the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to avoid the U.S. military attack.

"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 during a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

However, al-Moallem, would not give any further details in his brief statement and didn't take any questions from reporters.

U.S. officials said they will take a "hard look" at the proposal, but it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday the U.S. would consider the proposal with "serious skepticism" because it might be a stalling tactic. She said Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.

Moallem's statement came a few hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons by his forces by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.

Also Monday, 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.

Al-Moallem and Lavrov didn't make any immediate reference to Kerry's statement when they spoke to the media after their talks, but a few hours later Lavrov went before cameras to say that Moscow would urge Syria to quickly place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle it.

Lavrov, who held talks with al-Moallem in Moscow earlier in the day, said he expected a quick positive answer from Damascus.

"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.

"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," he said.

The surprise series of statements from top U.S., Russian and Syrian diplomats followed media reports alleging that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria with President Barack Obama during the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last week, had sought to negotiate a deal that would have Assad hand over control of chemical weapons.

Putin himself said Friday at a news conference marking the summit's end that he and Obama discussed some new ideas regarding a peaceful settlement of the crisis and instructed Kerry and Lavrov to work out details.

Speaking Monday, Lavrov denied that Russia was trying to sponsor any deal "behind the back of the Syrian people."

The Russian move comes as Obama, who has blamed Assad for killing hundreds of his own people in a chemical attack outside Damascus last month, is pressing for a limited military strike against the Syrian government. The Syrian regime has denied launching the attack, insisting along with Russia that the attack was launched by the rebels to drag the U.S. into the civil war.

The White House said 14 more nations have signed on to a statement blaming the Assad regime for the 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, as Obama is advocating. But administration officials said it's an implicit endorsement because the U.S. is publicly discussing a potential military strike.

But a new poll released by the Associated Press suggests that Obama still faces substantial resistance back home.

The poll released Monday shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, despite a weeks-long Obama administration campaign to bolster support.

Most of those surveyed said they believe even limited U.S. attacks — as President Barack Obama has promised — would lead to a long-term commitment of military forces in Syria.

And only 20 percent of Americans thought U.S. military action in Syria would deter other rogue nations from using their own weapons of mass destruction in the future.

That's been a top White House argument as it seeks congressional approval to strike Syria.

The poll was conducted September 6-8 by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.

Russian and Syrian foreign ministers Lavrov and al-Moallem said after their talks that U.N. chemical weapons experts should complete their probe and present their findings to the U.N. Security Council.

Al-Moallem said his government was ready to host the U.N. team, and insisted that Syria is ready to use all channels to persuade the Americans that it wasn't behind the attack. He added that Syria was ready for "full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression."

Neither minister, however, offered any evidence to back their claim of rebel involvement in the chemical attack.

Lavrov said Russia will continue to promote a peaceful settlement and may try to convene a gathering of all Syrian opposition figures to join in negotiations. He added that a U.S. attack on Syria would deal a fatal blow to peace efforts.

Lavrov wouldn't say how Russia could respond to a possible U.S. attack on Syria, saying: "We wouldn't like to proceed from a negative scenario and would primarily take efforts to prevent a military intervention."

Putin said Moscow would keep providing assistance to Syria in case of U.S. attack, but he and other Russian officials have made clear that Russia has no intention of engaging in hostilities.

— Vladimir Isachenkov, Zeina Karam, Edith Lederer, Matthew Lee, Jennifer Agiesta and Lara Jakes of the Associated Press

6:22 a.m.: The arguments for and against taking military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians were laid out Monday on Morning Edition.

Making the case for a "legitimate, necessary and proportional response was Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"The human and national security stakes of chemical weapons use," she said, are too high to go unanswered. Unless there's a response, Power said, Assad will use chemical weapons "again and again and again and it's only a matter of time before [they] fall into the hands of non-state actors" such as al-Qaida. Power also made the case that the U.S. can't wait for authorization from the U.N. Security Council because Russia will continue to block such a move by the U.N.

RELATED: Where does your member of Congress stand on a Syria strike?

Arguing against a military strike was Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee's foreign operation subcommittee. The conflict in Syria, he said, is "particularly intractable and particularly nasty. It's a war on many levels. A civil war, a religious war, a proxy war between the Iranians and the Saudis." He sees "no direct security threat to the United States" or its allies, and argues that limited strikes "are not likely to work." They would be "largely a gesture," Cole said.

Also on Morning Edition, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spoke about some of the more robust bombing options the Pentagon is considering — which he told us about last week — and plans that the U.S. military is drawing up to boost the training of Syrian rebels. But Tom said there is "a lot of skepticism [among] active duty military [officials] and retired military" about the Obama administration's push to take action against Assad. Many feel "that there is no strategy; there's no way ahead," Tom said.

Also Monday morning, CBS News posted more from CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose's interview with Assad. It leads its report with this:

"President Bashar Assad warned Sunday that if President Obama decides to launch military strikes on Syria, the U.S. and its allies should 'expect every action' in retaliation."

In London, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that he sympathizes with those who have doubts about the need for taking action against Syria. But he said this situation is much different than the run-up to the war with Iraq, NPR's Philip Reeves reports, because the Obama administration isn't talking about going to war. Rather, it is making the case for limited strikes on some of Assad's military assets.

Referring to the use of chemical weapons, Kerry said:

"The question for all of us is what are we going to do about it? Turn our backs? Have a moment's silence? Where a dictator can with impunity threaten the rest of the world that he's going to retaliate for his own criminal activity because he is being held accountable?"

Kerry also said Assad could head off a strike by handing over "every single bit" of his regime's chemical weapons within a week, USA Today writes. But Kerry added that he doesn't expect Assad will do that.

The debate over whether to strike will, of course, continue to build as the week goes on. President Obama is scheduled to make his case to the nation in a televised address Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. The Senate could vote on a resolution authorizing action as soon as Wednesday. A House vote is expected to follow in subsequent days.

Our earlier post: Obama Presses Lawmakers For Authorization On Syria

— Mark Memmott, NPR

 

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