WASHINGTON (AP) — Opening a possible diplomatic solution to avoid a U.S. military strike, Syria's foreign minister on Monday welcomed a suggestion floated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to move all the country's chemical weapons under international control.
The White House said it was taking a hard look at Syria's statement even as it redoubled efforts to sell the notion of the strike to a skeptical Congress and divided nation and senators prepared for a key test vote on the strike authorization Wednesday. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fresh from a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, said immediately moving Syria's chemical weapons to international control "would be an important step."
"But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction, and Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account," Clinton said, speaking at a White House forum focused on wildlife trafficking. "It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria's stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to put pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia."
A new Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, despite the Obama administration's push to respond to chemical weapons attacks the U.S. blames on President Bashar Assad's regime. The poll was released Monday and conducted September 6-8 by GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.
Kerry said during a news conference in London that if Assad wanted to defuse the crisis, "he could turn every single bit of his chemical weapons over to the international community" within a week. But he said that Assad "isn't about to do it."
It wasn't clear whether Kerry was making an off-the-cuff remark or floating a way out of the Obama administration's uphill battle to get support for a strike. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem quickly agreed, at the urging of Syrian ally Russia, and the idea immediately gained international support.
"Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people," al-Moallem said on a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov took Kerry's proposal to al-Moallem.
Al-Moallem, however, wouldn't give any further details in his brief statement and didn't take any questions. It was the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons.
The Obama administration tried to quickly tamp down the notion Kerry was making an orchestrated effort with the Russians to avoid strikes. "Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," Kerry spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
But White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. "will have to take a hard look at the Russian proposal" for turning control of Syria's chemical weapons over to the international community. "We're skeptical of any statements by the Syrian government given that they haven't even declared their chemical weapons and used them in violation of international law," Rhodes said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to immediately agree to transfer chemical weapons and chemical precursors to a safe place within the country for international destruction. Ban said he will also propose to the Security Council that it unite and demand an immediate chemical weapons transfer should U.N. inspectors conclude that such weapons were used in an attack Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus.
Assad granted an interview to American television journalist Charlie Rose to contradict the Obama administration's accusation that his government used sarin gas in that attack, killing 1,429 people. President Barack Obama planned to press the case in a round of six interviews for Monday evening television newscasts.
Assad accused the Obama administration of spreading "lies" and said they have not presented a "single shred of evidence" to the public that his government is behind chemical weapons use. He warned an attack could bring retaliation in the volatile region.
"It's area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything," Assad said in an interview broadcast on "CBS This Morning." Pressed on what those repercussions might include, Assad responded, "I'm not fortune teller."
"If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms," Assad said.
The White House was unmoved by Assad's denial. "It doesn't surprise us that someone who would kill thousands of his own people, including hundreds of children with poison gas, would also lie about it," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
The White House said Monday that 14 more nations have signed on to a statement blaming Assad's government for a chemical weapons attack and calling for a strong international response. That means the list has grown to 25 from the 11 — including the U.S. — who initially signed on. The statement was unveiled Friday at the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The statement doesn't explicitly call for military action against Syria, but administration officials say it's an implicit endorsement because the U.S. is publicly discussing a potential military strike.
Obama has a challenge to convince Congress to back a strike authorization, although leaders of both parties are supporting the measure. A survey by The Associated Press shows that House members who are staking out positions are either opposed to or leaning against the plan for a military strike by more than a 6-1 margin.
"It's an uphill slog," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who supports strikes on Assad. "I think it's very clear he's lost support in the last week," Rogers added, speaking of the president.
Almost half of the 433 current members in the House and a third of the 100-member Senate remain undecided, the AP survey found. They will be the subject of intense lobbying from the administration — as well as outside groups that have formed coalitions that defy the traditional left-right divide.
One of the two female Iraq war veterans in Congress said Monday she opposes the strikes, underscoring the administration's struggle in trying to rally Democrats to back the use of force. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii bemoaned the carnage in Syria after the chemical weapons attack, but said she has concluded that a U.S. military strike would be a serious mistake.
"As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan," Gabbard said in a statement. "The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria."
Sen. Lamar Alexander also announced Monday he would vote no against the resolution, which would authorize "limited and specified use" of U.S. armed forces against Syria for no more than 90 days and ban American ground troops from combat.
"I see too much risk that the strike will do more harm than good by setting off a chain of consequences that could involve American fighting men and women in another long-term Middle East conflict," Alexander said.
A Monday evening briefing for lawmakers was being led by Kerry, Rice, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Marin Dempsey. Vice President Joe Biden was briefing senators from both parties at the White House. And Obama planned to a rare visit to Capitol Hill to lobby Senate Democrats personally on Tuesday, before addressing the nation from the White House Tuesday evening.
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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Deb Riechmann in London and Julie Pace, Donna Cassata and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.