President Barack Obama expressed skepticism at a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international inspectors to avert U.S. military strikes -- even as the Arab republic publicly welcomed the initiative.
"I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially," Obama told NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie on Monday night. “This represents a potentially positive development. We are gonna run this to ground.”
"I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world, has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move," Obama added.
"And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we have seen them operate over the last couple of years."
The proposal was conveyed to Syria earlier Monday by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who told reporters he expected “a quick and, I hope, a positive answer.”
Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem then issued a statement that struck a positive note while bowing to his Russian benefactors and allies.
“I announce that the Arab republic of Syria welcomes the Russian initiative,” Moualem said, according to an NBC News translation. “This stems from our care about the safety of our people and wisdom of the Russian leadership.”
A senior White House official told NBC News that it was no more than a delay tactic. Hours later, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the previous secretary of state, said after a meeting with President Barack Obama that it would be “an important step” if Syria ceded control of its chemical weapons stockpile.
“This is a fluid situation,” she said.
And Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, said that the White House would welcome Assad’s giving up chemical weapons.
“That’s the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve, to make sure that he can’t use them again. That would be terrific,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry had said that Syrian leader Bashar Assad could avoid an American attack by surrendering his chemical weapons within a week. But he said Assad would never agree to it, and a spokeswoman later said Kerry was speaking rhetorically.
“His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago,” the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in a statement. “That’s why the world faces this moment.”
Russia is an ally of Syria, and Russian opposition is one reason the United States is not working through the United Nations to build support for a strike to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons in its civil war.
The senior administration official told NBC News that Russia was only trying to protect the Assad regime and that the United States would make decisions about a military response “on our own timeline, period.” Marie Harf, another State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. would “take a step back and we’ll look at the Russian statement.”
President Barack Obama will address the country Tuesday night to press the case for an attack. The administration says it has overwhelming evidence that Assad’s forces used nerve gas to kill 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, in an attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to a safe place so that they could be destroyed. He also said he would propose that the U.N. Security Council demand such a transfer if U.N. inspectors conclude that chemicals were used in the attack.
If the inspectors confirm the use of chemicals, “this would be an abominable crime, and the international community would certainly have to do something about it,” Ban said. “Two and half years of conflict in Syria have produced only embarrassing paralysis in the Security Council.”
Syrian foreign minister Moualem accused Obama of backing terrorists and invoked Sept. 11. Sunni Muslim extremists allied with al Qaeda are among the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
“We are asking ourselves how Obama can ... support those who in their time blew up the World Trade Center in New York,” said at a press conference with Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, in Moscow.
Lavrov said there was enough evidence to show that the rebels fighting Assad have chemical weapons themselves.
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem (2nd from left) attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday.
Russia, one of Assad’s staunchest supporters, continued its call for a political solution to the crisis, which has claimed 100,000 lives, displaced close to a third of Syria’s population and destabilized the region.
Kerry made another impassioned statement in support of military action against Assad's government, saying Syria and its close ally Iran had admitted there was a chemical attack but blamed it on others.
"We see people dying, children, young kids not old enough to even speak, heaving for breath,” he said during a press conference with British Foreign Minister William Hague in London.
“If we don’t stand up to it, we will face it more, and they will think they can intimidate anybody,” he said. “The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of not acting.”
Assad has steadfastly rejected he was behind the gas attacks. In an exclusive interview with journalist Charlie Rose, Assad “denied that he had anything to do” with the chemical weapons attack last month, according to CBS News.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists, says it has been able to confirm 502 dead in the Aug. 21 attack.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, made a broader strategic case for striking Syria. In a speech at the New America Foundation, a policy organization, she said that North Korea and Iran cannot be allowed to think that the U.S. will let a chemical weapons attack go unanswered.
She also said that failing to respond would bring the world closer to a day when “terrorists might gain and use chemical weapons against Americans abroad and at home.”
Obama recorded a slew of interviews on Monday, the first day Congress will be in session since an August recess. Syria debate could begin in the full Senate this week, with voting as early as Wednesday. The House may take up the issue this week.
Foreshadowing the president’s message to Americans in a rare prime-time address planned for Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told “Meet The Press” that “nobody is rebutting the intelligence; nobody doubts the intelligence” that is the basis for pinning the blame for the chemical weapons attack in Syria on Assad's regime.
“Our troops have not been subject to chemical weapons attacks since World War I,” he said. “We have to make sure that for the sake of our guys — our men and women on the front lines — that we reinforce this prohibition against using chemical weapons.”
Despite these assertion, Obama faces an uphill battle convincing Congress as well as the international community to back the attacks.
He will have to convince skeptical lawmakers to approve limited bombing strikes against Assad and rally a war-weary American public to back yet another military action in the Middle East.
Peter Alexander, Ali Weinberg and Jeff Black of NBC News contributed to this report. Reuters and The Associated Press also contributed. F. Brinley Bruton reported from London and Erin McClam from New York.
First published September 9 2013, 6:23 PM