The Syrian government Tuesday appeared poised to accept the Russian proposal for Syria to hand over chemical weapons amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuverings around the world.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Damascus was ready to cooperate on the Russian initiative and join a convention that forbids their use.
"I am authorized to confirm our support for the Russian initiative regarding chemical weapons in Syria in compliance with the regime of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons," Moualem said, referring to an agreement written in 1992 and ratified by 189 countries that bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
"We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons and also show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations," the foreign minister added.
Addressing the nation Tuesday night, President Barack Obama said he would work with other countries to pressure Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them.
But Obama said he would order the military to stay in place in the region and to keep pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The United States, Obama said in his speech, has been an "anchor of global security for nearly seven decades."
"The burdens of leadership are often heavy but the world’s a better place because we have borne them," he added.
Meanwhile, in Syria, rebels and activists believe that the proposal to hand over chemical weapons is a ploy. Those who oppose the regime told NBC News that Assad is getting away with murder -- getting away with using chemical weapons that killed hundreds of civilians.
"There is anger and disappointment on the streets now. We have been facing death and under fire for the last two and a half years while the world has been silent," an opposition activist in Damascus said. "Even after the use of chemical weapons, no one acted. We only have God to help us."
"I think Bashar Assad won this battle," said a Free Syrian Army commander, adding that the United States doesn't seem to care about Syria's losses. "There will be more victims and more destruction."
The growing momentum behind Russia's plan, which had already been endorsed by China and Iran, came only 24 hours after Kerry raised a weapons handover at a news conference in London.
Obama said Monday that the Russia plan offered a potential path that averted U.S. military strikes, but Kerry cautioned that the only reason the Russia solution has "potential legs at all" is because of a credible threat of force.
"Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging," Kerry told a congressional committee Tuesday. He said Obama would look at the plan but added: "We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long.”
Kerry said it had been the “credible use of force” by the U.S. that has “for the first time brought this regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal,” adding that the threat of military action “is more compelling if the Congress stands with the commander in chief.”
U.S. officials said Kerry also expressed concern that it would be hard to verify whether Syria had complied with any such plan, or to know if the regime had still kept some of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel echoed that line to the committee, saying the Russia deal "could be a real solution to this crisis," but added: "We must be clear-eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patrons."
Senior senators — including John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. — announced they were working on a new plan that would authorize the president to use force only if Syria did not comply with a U.N. resolution to remove chemical weapons by a pre-determined deadline.
Even as they discussed their move, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced his opposition to military strikes against Syria. And Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and Kerry's successor in the Senate, said he would not support the use of force resolution passed by the committee, calling it too broad.
Speaking after she was awarded the 2013 Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton said Assad's use of chemical weapons requires a "strong response."
"As you know, the president will address the nation shortly about the Assad regime's inhuman use of lethal chemicals against men, women and children. That violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order and it demands a strong response from the international community led by United States. This debate is good for our democracy," Clinton said.
The White House has been battling to shore up support in Congress for a strike, which is unpopular among Americans. The Senate delayed an authorization vote after the Russian proposal became public, but on Tuesday Kerry said that "nothing has changed" on the administration request for congressional action.
In a further development, a spokesman for Putin said the Russian president had discussed the weapons handover plan with Obama at last week’s G-20 summit, and a senior administration official told NBC News that the two had discussed the concept a year ago. The official said, however, that it wasn't until the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of people that the Russians showed a willingness to put together a serious proposal.
That shed a different light on Kerry’s mention of the plan at a news conference in London on Monday. That had previously been characterized by spokesman Jen Psaki as an off-the-cuff “rhetorical argument.”
But diplomatic sources told NBC News Tuesday night that Russia was already objecting to some of the language that was being drafted by the U.S., France and Great Britain as they attempt to work on a new UN resolution to enforce the plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons.
Russia's objections were in line with Putin's earlier comments that the use of force had to be completely off the table for the plan to work, the sources said.
Meanwhile, Obama's case for limited airstrikes targeting Assad's regime was boosted early Tuesday when a Human Rights Watch report blamed Syrian government forces for the Aug. 21 attack.
The U.S.-based rights group said it had reached its conclusion after analyzing witness accounts, remnants of the weapons used and medical records of victims.
HRW said it did not believe the attack could have been carried out by rebels or other “terrorists” as a smokescreen, as suggested by Assad. "Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers," the report added.
Adding to international concern, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency reported that Syrian jets bombed the border town of Tel Abyad on Monday, prompting yet more Syrians to seek refuge in Turkey. Thousands had already flooded across the border, leaving authorities struggling to cope.
NBC News' Courtney Kube, Kasie Hunt, Andrea Mitchell, Andy Eckardt, Richard Engel, Kelly O'Donnell, Catherine Chomiak and Becky Bratu contributed to this report, along with The Associated Press and Reuters.
First published September 10 2013, 6:06 PM