WASHINGTON — Responding to a Russian proposal on Syria’s chemical munitions that could avert a military strike by the United States, a bipartisan group of eight senators was drafting an alternative congressional resolution on Tuesday that would give the United Nations time to take control of the Syrian government’s arsenal of the internationally banned weapons.
If the alternative resolution gained political traction, it could stave off a congressional vote — and possibly a debilitating defeat for the Obama administration — in the coming days on a more immediate resolution authorizing the use of force, which a majority of Americans appear to oppose. That resolution, approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, has been losing ground in both parties in recent days. Passage appeared increasingly difficult in the House and possibly the Senate as well.
The alternative resolution is far from complete, but a Senate aide familiar with the talks said the negotiations are being conducted in consultation with the White House. It would require the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and would set a deadline for UN control of the arsenal. If that deadline is not met, the resolution would authorize the use of US military force.
The alternative resolution was likely to be presented to Democratic and Republican senators at meetings later in the day with President Barack Obama, who was still planning to address the nation Tuesday evening about what he has called the need for military force in response to the use of deadly chemical munitions last month in the Syrian civil war.
The bipartisan group drafting the measure includes Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Chris Coons of Delaware. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the foreign relations committee, is in consultations.
News of the proposed bipartisan resolution came hours after France, attempting to seize the initiative on the Russian proposal, said it was drafting a Security Council resolution enshrining the idea. In Moscow, Russian officials said they were working with the authorities in Damascus on a “workable, precise and concrete plan” to advance the proposal, which received public endorsements from Syria’s foreign minister and prime minister, but not Assad.
“We are hoping to present this plan in the near future,” said Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. “We will be ready to work through this plan and improve it with the participation of the UN general secretary, with chemical weapons control organizations and with the members of the Security Council.”
The Russian blueprint also won backing from China, which has resisted Western calls for military action against Syria but said Tuesday that it supported Moscow’s vow to avert a US strike.
The rapid-fire diplomatic developments elicited skepticism from many regional and international players who questioned the motives behind the Russian gambit and speculated that Moscow’s plan would enable the Syrian authorities to buy time.
Visiting Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem repeated Tuesday that the Syrian government had accepted the Russian initiative to “uproot US aggression.” But, analysts said, his comment fell short of an unambiguous pledge by Syria to give up its arsenal. It was also unclear if the minister had the authority to speak for Assad, especially without returning to Damascus for consultations.
Syrian state television quoted Prime Minister Wael al-Halki as saying his government supported Moscow’s initiative “to spare Syrian blood.”
For their part, the rebels battling to overthrow Assad denounced the Russian proposal as a political maneuver, reflecting a belief that President Vladimir Putin was seeking to shield the Syrian government, his closest Middle East ally.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the French approach to the Security Council would be made under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which provides for an array of action, including military, to restore peace and urge the Syrians to accept that their chemical stockpiles would be dismantled.
He also said he expected a “nearly immediate” commitment from the Syrian authorities and added that Russia had information about the chemical weapons stockpile amassed by the Syrian authorities. Fabius said he hoped the Security Council would approve a tough resolution after months of efforts by China and Russia to thwart Western action at the United Nations.
The French proposal will call for Syria to allow inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to oversee the destruction of chemical weapons in the country and will require that Syria become a member of the organization. It is one of five states that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international convention banning the use and stockpiling of chemical arms and the materials required in their production.
“Extremely serious consequences” would be planned for any deviation from the obligations of the resolution, Fabius said, though he remained cautious about the prospect of the French proposal being adopted. Russia, a firm ally of Assad and permanent member of the Security Council, has vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria since the start of the conflict.
“It is upon the acceptance of these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions that were expressed yesterday,” Fabius said.
France has emerged as the Obama administration’s leading European ally after the British Parliament voted against involvement of military action in Syria. Earlier, Fabius said the Russian proposal represented an about-face by Moscow that showed the impact of French and US diplomacy.
“We welcome the Russian proposal with interest and caution,” Fabius told a radio interviewer in Paris. “Our decisiveness has paid off.”
Officials in Moscow expressed no small amount of satisfaction that Russia’s plan had — at least for now — averted a military intervention in Syria that Putin and others have vehemently opposed as a dangerous extension of US meddling in the Middle East.
Alexei K. Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of Parliament, said in a posting on Twitter that the proposal “cut the ground from under Obama’s launching of military strikes.”
Lavrov said he had discussed the proposal with the Americans before announcing it at a hastily arranged briefing Monday evening. Obama and Putin discussed the idea privately on the sidelines of last week’s summit of the Group of 20 nations and Lavrov discussed it with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.
In their conversation, Kerry told his Russian counterpart, “We’re not going to play games,” according to a senior State Department official.
By Monday night, however, the proposal had gained broad support and Obama said it was worth exploring.
“This proposal is a good way out of a complex situation for all the interested parties,” the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian Parliament, Mikhail V. Margelov, said. Noting the US Senate’s postponement of a vote, he said that Obama had “saved face among hawks demanding that intervention.”
The Duma, which opened its fall session Tuesday, announced that it would adopt a resolution supporting the initiative. The Parliament’s chairman, Sergei Y. Naryshkin, cited “the hopefully positive developments” and credited “the principled and unswerving stand of Russia” to avert an intervention.
The hectic developments came as a leading rights group supported conclusions by Western governments that only the government of Assad could have launched the attack that killed hundreds of people, many of them children.
While Assad has denied that his forces used toxic agents in the attacks on the morning of Aug. 21, Human Rights Watch in New York said evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers involved in the strike “suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces.”
The report identified the delivery systems used on Aug. 21 as a Soviet-era 140-mm rocket “designed to carry and deliver” about five pounds of sarin, and a 330 mm rocket capable of carrying “a large payload of liquid chemical agent.”
On Monday, Obama tentatively embraced the Russian proposal, adding new uncertainty to his push to win support among allies, the American public and members of Congress for a limited attack.
But the proposal seems freighted with uncertainties relating as much to the tactical considerations behind it as to the practical issues involved in enforcing it at the height of a bloody civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives since March 2011.
“If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision, clearly that would be a big step forward and should be encouraged,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain told Parliament on Monday. “I think we have to be careful, though, to make sure this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something else rather than the problem on the table, but if it is a genuine offer, then it should be genuinely looked at.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing elections on Sept. 22, seemed noncommital, saying the Russian proposals were “interesting suggestions.”
The sharpest criticism came from opponents of Assad, who said in a statement in Beirut that the Russian proposal “is a political maneuver and is part of useless procrastination that will only result in more deaths and destruction for the Syrian people,” Agence France-Presse reported.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli government had no immediate comment on the Russian proposal, in line with its policy of trying to keep out of the heated US debate over how to deal with Syria.
Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister of Israel who now chairs the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and is a political ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that it was not yet clear if the Russian proposal entailed the removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons or supervising them on Syrian territory, and that Israel should not take a stand.
But, like some in the West, Lieberman expressed skepticism about the initiative, saying that Assad was “gaining time, and lots of it,” that there was no clarity about the quantity of chemical weapons in Syria’s possession and that Assad could not be taken at his word.
Israel views its stake in the outcome of the Syrian chemical weapons debate as bigger than most countries: Israeli officials say this as a test case for the upholding of red lines and how Obama and the international community might deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Netanyahu and his aides have long argued that a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem has no chance unless it is coupled with a credible military threat. If the Russian deal on Syria works out in the end to everybody’s satisfaction, some Israelis said it could be seen as a good precedent.
“In Jerusalem they should be happy,” wrote Ron Ben-Yishai, a military affairs analyst on Ynet, a leading Hebrew news site. “It has clearly been proven that a credible American military option can be a successful deterrent. The Iranian context is as clear as the sun, as is the future direction of the joint strategic course of the United States and Israel regarding Tehran.”
But other Israelis were already viewing the developments on Syria as tokens of American weakness.