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.
“Now if the regime immediately surrenders its stockpile to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay and obstruction and Russia has to support the international community’s efforts sincerely or be held to account,” Clinton said, speaking at a forum on wildlife trafficking.
Lavrov went into more detail than Kerry’s suggestion — which Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, described as more of a rhetorical exercise than a proposal.
Lavrov said Russia was proposing that Syria join the international Convention on Chemical Weapons, which bars the manufacture, stockpiling and use of poison gas.
Syria is one of seven nations that have not signed the treaty, the others being Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan.
“We are counting on a quick, and I hope, positive answer,” Lavrov said Monday evening as Kerry flew back to Washington to attend briefings on Capitol Hill intended to build support for a military response to Syria’s use of such weapons.
For William Hague, the British foreign secretary, whose government has already ruled out participation in a military strike on Syria in deference to Parliamentary opposition, the meeting with Kerry was nonetheless an opportunity to affirm British support for the United States, is most important ally.
“Our government supports the objective of ensuring that there can be no impunity for the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st century,” Hague said in his joint appearance with Kerry. “As an international community we must deter further attacks and hold those responsible for them accountable..”
Hague also said: “We admire the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Kerry himself, in making this case so powerfully to the world.”
Kerry said Assad’s claims that he was not responsible for the chemical attack on Aug. 21 that provoked an international crisis over whether to launch punitive military strikes were not credible because Syria’s arsenal of poison gas is tightly controlled.
Kerry said three senior officials in the Syrian government have held control over the nation’s chemical weapons stocks and their use: Assad, his brother Maher and a senior general.
Kerry said “high level” members of the government gave the instructions to use chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus “with the results going directly to President Assad.”
When asked if the White House would consider making public additional intelligence to counter Assad’s claims that he had nothing to do with the attack, like physical samples that documented the use of sarin gas produced by the Syrian government, Kerry said that he did not know what Obama would decide.
But he asserted that the Obama administration had already made available copious amounts of intelligence, and that the case against Assad was airtight.
In a discussion on Sunday with Charlie Rose, a US television interviewer, Assad asserted that Kerry had lied about the intelligence, drawing an analogy to the presentation that Colin Powell made to the United Nations about Iraq in 2003. Kerry appeared unruffled by that allegation and recalled that his own experience in dealing with Assad as a senator had convinced him that the Syrian leader could not be trusted.
In early 2009, Kerry met with Assad in Damascus to explore the possibility of improving relations between the United States and Syria. Kerry said that he confronted Assad about intelligence confirming that Syria had transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah.
Kerry said Assad had “denied it to my face,” adding, “This is a man without credibility.”
Repeating a point he has stressed throughout his four days of discussions with European allies, Kerry said that if an attack was carried out, it would be limited in scope and duration, would not involve ground troops, and would not drag the United States and its allies into a prolonged conflict. He emphasized that it would be nothing like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NATO bombing of Kosovo or the intervention in Libya.
Steven Lee Myers reported from Moscow, Michael R. Gordon reported from London and Rick Gladstone from New York. Eric Schmitt and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.