President Obama answers questions during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 6, 2013.
(Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
President Obama said on Monday he would "run to ground" a proposal outlined by the Russians that would wrest control of chemical weapons from Syria and would potentially head off a U.S. military strike against the Bashar Assad regime.
Obama, who conducted a half dozen television interviews on Monday afternoon to try to gin up support for his call for military action against Syria said he would "absolutely" put off a punitive strike if Assad gave up his weapons.
"It's possible if it's real," Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Monday of the possible breakthrough on the Syria crisis. "And, you know, I think it's certainly a positive development when, the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures toward dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we've been asking for not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years."
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"If we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I'm all for it," Obama added in an interview with PBSNewsHour.
"But we're going to have to see specifics," Obama said. "And I think it is reasonable to assume that we would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons."
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The comments from Obama came after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested earlier on Monday that if Assad turned over "every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week" he could avoid military action. Those remarks triggered a proposal on Monday from the Russians that Damascus place its chemical weapons under international monitors to head off a confrontation
Obama also expressed pessimism about Congress approving a military strike against Syria, telling NBC News in a separate "I wouldn't say I'm confident" about the measure passing.
The Syrian government said Monday it welcomed the Russian proposal to avoid a U.S.military strike by placing its chemical weapons under international monitors.
The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem came in response to a proposal put forth Monday by his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as a way to defuse the crisis over the use of chemical weapons. The two foreign ministers held talks in Moscow on Monday.
"I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people," Moualem said.
Moualem did not say whether his country would agree to what Russia was asking.
Lavrov said he hoped to receive a "fast and positive answer."
The Russian foreign minister said that if such a move would help avert a possible U.S. strike on Syria, Russia will start work "immediately" to persuade Syria to give up control of its chemical arsenals.
In Washington, the White House said Monday it will "want to take a hard look" at the Russian proposal.
"We'll talk to the Russians about it," said deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken.
Blinken said the proposal comes in the "context of U.S. action and the pressure the president is exerting."
Also in Washington, former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Syria surrendering chemical stockpiles would be an "important step" to averting a U.S. military strike, but it can't be an "excuse for delay or obstruction" by the Bashar Assad regime.
In Moscow, Lavrov said Russia would urge Syria to concentrate its chemical weapons in certain areas under international oversight, then dismantle them.
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United Nations 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 would urge the Security Council to demand an immediate chemical weapons transfer if U.N. inspectors determine such weapons were used in an attack Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus.
"I am sure that the international community will take quick measures to make sure that these chemical weapons reserves are stored in a safe place and are to be destroyed," Ban said.
The Obama administration has accused the Assad regime of mounting the attack that killed more than 1,400 people. President Obama has called on Congress to back a limited strike against Syria in response.
Lavrov said U.N. chemical weapons experts should complete their probe of the attack and present their findings to the U.N. Security Council.
"We have agreed to push for the soonest return of inspectors," Lavrov said.
Moualem said his government was ready to host the U.N. team and insisted that Syria is ready to use all channels to convince the Americans it wasn't behind the attack.
He said Syria was ready for "full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression."
Syria is one of only five countries - including Angola, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan - that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention drawn up in 1992.
The arms control treaty, signed by 189 countries, bans the use and production of chemical weapons and calls for their destruction. Burma, also known as Myanmar, and Israel have signed the agreement but not ratified it.
In London, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked if Assad could do anything to avoid a military strike.
"Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," he said. "Turn it over. All of it, without delay. And allow the full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it."
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked whether Kerry's remarks amounted to an ultimatum.
"Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," she said in a statement. "His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts can not be trusted to turn over chemical weapons; otherwise, he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment."
In an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS' This Morning, Assad denied using chemical weapons to attack his own people, but he would neither confirm nor deny his government kept such weapons. If they exist, he said they are "in centralized control."
Syria has denied launching the attack Aug. 21, insisting along with its ally Russia that the attack was launched by the rebels to drag the United States into war. Assad told CBS his troops were attacked by chemical weapons and were not the aggressors.
"Our soldiers in another area were attacked chemically," he told Rose. "Our soldiers. They went to the hospital - as casualties because of chemical weapons."
Lavrov said Russia will continue to promote a peaceful settlement and may try to convene a gathering of all Syrian opposition figures to join negotiations. He said a U.S. attack on Syria would deal a fatal blow to peace efforts.
Lavrov wouldn't say how Russia could respond to a U.S. attack on Syria, saying, "We wouldn't like to proceed from a negative scenario and would primarily take efforts to prevent a military intervention."
President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would keep providing assistance to Syria in case of U.S. attack, but he and other Russian officials have made clear that Russia has no intention to engage in hostilities.
Assad, in his interview with CBS, said the United States would face "repercussions" in the event of an attack.
Contributing: Associated Press