A group of anti-Assad demonstrators waving the Free Syria flag rally in front of the US Capitol on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, yesterday.
BEIRUT/LONDON: As President Barack Obama struggled to rally Congress and the American people behind military action in Syria, Russia seized on a remark by his secretary of state yesterday to say Damascus should save itself by handing over its chemical weapons.
John Kerry was quick to dismiss as hypothetical his own comment that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad could avert US strikes by surrendering his chemical arsenal to international control. But Assad’s ally Russia quickly turned it into a firm proposal that was “welcomed” by Damascus and echoed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
Rebels fighting Assad’s forces on the ground, where hundreds are being killed by conventional bullets and explosives every week, dismissed any such weapons transfer as impossible to police and a decoy to frustrate US plans to attack.
The White House said it was “seriously sceptical” but would take a “hard look” at the proposal.
Kerry later called Lavrov to tell him that while his remarks had been rhetorical and the United States was not going to “play games,” if there was a serious proposal, then Washington would take a look at it, a senior US official said.
With President Obama preparing to make his case in television interviews later yesterday to Americans wary of involvement in another distant war, the armaments proposal could complicate his task — or give the president an alternative to military action.
The outcome of votes in Congress remains hard to predict.
Obama has argued that Assad, fighting to continue his family’s four-decade rule in a civil war well into its third year, must be punished for what Washington says was a poison gas attack on rebel areas that killed over 1,400 people on August 21.
The president surprised friends and foes by turning to Congress for approval, delaying any US response.
Asked by a reporter during a visit to London whether there was anything Assad’s government could do or offer to stop a US military strike, Secretary of State Kerry answered:
“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. But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”
The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which Assad denies his forces used.
Less than five hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had put what sounded like Kerry’s proposal to his visiting Syrian counterpart during talks in Moscow. Walid Al Moualem said Damascus welcomed the Russian initiative — while not spelling out whether Syria would, or even could, comply. REUTERS