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Obama weighs Russia proposal on Syria chemical arsenal

The proposal to place Syria's stockpile under U.N. control offers President Obama a face-saving solution amid opposition to a U.S. military strike.

September 09, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled cautious support for Russia's proposal on Syria. “If the [Syrian] regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control … that would be an important step,” she said.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled cautious support… (Carolyn Kaster, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — With hopes shrinking for congressional support of punitive missile strikes, President Obama tentatively embraced a face-saving solution to the crisis over Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, spurred by an offhand comment by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

Obama said Monday that he was looking skeptically, but seriously, at a Russian offer to push the Syrian government to put its vast chemical weapons arsenal and infrastructure under United Nations control. He called the development a "potentially significant breakthrough."

"We will pursue this diplomatic track," Obama said on Fox News. "I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a nonmilitary way."

The Russian proposal, which Syria's foreign minister said his country would support, followed a remark by Kerry that was so unscripted a State Department spokeswoman initially warned reporters it was merely "rhetorical."

But it quickly developed into an opportunity. Members of Congress, British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders hailed the possibility that Syria might surrender its stockpile of nerve gases, blister agents and other chemical weapons.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would delay indefinitely an initial vote on a resolution to authorize use of force in Syria, perhaps saving Obama a bruising political defeat. The delay marked an abrupt reversal in legislative strategy, just four hours after Reid had announced that senators would cast their first procedural votes on the resolution Wednesday.

"I don't think we need to see how fast we can do this. We have to see how well we can do this," Reid said. The vote would have been the first test of Obama's increasingly difficult pursuit of congressional authorization for U.S. military action.

Although White House aides were caught off guard by the proposal, by the end of the day Obama was claiming some credit for it, arguing that the U.S. threat of force had pushed Russia and Syria to compromise. Until now, Russia has blocked attempts at the U.N. to censure Syrian President Bashar Assad's government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians and other abuses.

Obama said he had discussed a possible U.N. solution with Russian President Vladimir Putin, most recently last week in St. Petersburg, where the two leaders met on the sidelines of a global economic summit.

"This is something that is not new. I've been discussing this with President Putin for some time now," Obama said.

The leading Republican proponents of military action, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said they would support a one-week delay to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution leading to Assad's forces giving up their stores of toxic weapons.

"It's got to be verifiable, it's got to be definitive and it's got to be time-sensitive," McCain said. He described himself as "very, very skeptical."

But other lawmakers in both parties signaled support for the Russian proposal.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she would "welcome such a move." Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called a U.N. takeover of the Syrian weapons "extremely appealing to me." Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) called it "the best thing to come out of Russia since vodka."

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes "Russia is key" to ending the crisis in Syria.

"If this Russian issue is real and it's not a stalling tactic, this might be the beginning of us developing a better relationship," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the intelligence panel.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is a potential presidential candidate in 2016, also signaled cautious support. "If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control … that would be an important step," she said.

If the initiative succeeds, or even if it indefinitely forestalls a U.S. attack and deters Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, it will leave Obama in the awkward position of being partially bailed out of a political jam by Putin. Relations between the two leaders have been so dismal that the White House scrubbed a formal summit in Moscow last week, saying there was no point.

White House aides said Obama would continue to press for congressional authorization for use of force, which would be separate from any progress at the U.N. He is scheduled to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday night.

Although few details were available Monday, the Russian proposal presumably would require approval by the Security Council and creation of a robust inspection system to collect, safeguard and destroy chemical weapons in the midst of Syria's raging civil war. It wasn't clear how that would be carried out or if it was even possible.

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