September 9, 2013
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The White House gave a cautious welcome on Monday to a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, opening up the first real chance of a political settlement to the crisis since hundreds of civilians died in an attack on a Damascus suburb last month.
US deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said “it would be terrific” if Syria followed through on a reported offer by its foreign minister to place chemical stockpiles under the control of international observers. But he nevertheless expressed scepticism whether it would do so. “Unfortunately, the track record to date does not inspire a lot of confidence,” Blinken said.
The White House said it would now work with the Russians to explore the deal proposed earlier on Monday by foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, after an apparent off-the-cuff remark by US secretary of state John Kerry. The administration stressed that these discussions would take place “in parallel” with continued efforts in Washington to persuade US lawmakers to authorise the use of military force against Syria.
The diplomatic scramble began in London when Kerry suggested that the only way for Syria to avoid the threat of a US attack would be for it to hand over all its chemical weapons within a week.
At first, the significance of the remarks were downplayed by the Department of State, which said he had been speaking “rhetorically”, but Kerry’s language was immediately seized on by Lavrov, who raised the prospect of international observers supervising such a handover.
“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,” Lavrov said after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.
Whether intentional or not, Kerry’s comments opened up a chance to defuse the crisis at a moment when Barack Obama was already struggling to persuade Congress of the need for US intervention. Kerry later spoke to Lavrov by phone and Washington scrambled to place its own spin on the unexpected breakthrough.
Obama was due to give a round of TV interviews in the US on Monday evening before delivering a direct address to the nation on Tuesday.
A key legislative ally, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that she would welcomed a move by Syria to put its chemical weapons beyond use.
“I believe that Russia can be most effective in encouraging the Syrian president to stop any use of chemical weapons and place all his chemical munitions, as well as storage facilities, under United Nationscontrol until they can be destroyed,” Feinstein said.
The former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, speaking after a hastily arranged meeting with Obama, said the move could be an “important step”.
White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that the offer by Russia and Syria had only come about because of “sustained pressure” from the US.
“It is our position and has been for some time that the Syrian regime should not use and also not possess stockpiles of chemical weapons, and we would welcome any proposals that would result in the international control and destruction of that chemical weapons stockpile,” he said in a press conference.
“There is no question that we have seen some indications of an acceptance of this proposal [from the Syrians], but this is a very early stage and we approach this with scepticism,” added Carney.