Russia on Monday asked Syria to hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons to international monitors to avoid military strikes. Syria welcomed the call.
The Russian initiative started out as an offhand remark by US
secretary of state John Kerry at a news conference in London that Syria could avoid the strikes by turning over its stockpile.
The US has since called Kerry’s offer “hypothetical”.
But Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally Russia put its full weight behind it hours later turning it into a serious initiative, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying Syria should accept it.
Russia would “immediately begin working with Damascus” on this if “international control over chemical weapons in that country will avoid strikes”, Lavrov said in Moscow.
The White House said Kerry’s offer was a hypothetical one. But now that Russia has turned it serious -- and Syria welcomed it -- the US will take a “hard look” at the “Russian proposal.”
Moscow doesn’t want to stop at Syrian surrendering its stockpile. Lavrov said, “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”
A defiant Assad, in a CBS interview earlier, questioned the US case against him, saying the Obama administration has not presented a single “shred of evidence”.
Assad has threatened to retaliate if attacked.
The US has charged the Syrian government with using chemical weapons on August 21, killing over 1,400 people, including 400 children. And has said it has conclusive evidence.
On the basis of that evidence — communications intercepts, videos of victims — the president has sought congressional approval for limited punitive strikes against Syria.
Support for any military action is lacking, polls show, among the public and lawmakers. Majority of Americans polled -- 50% and over — were against military intervention.
There is even less support for it if congress didn’t grant the authorization requested by Obama, who, technically, has the power to order the strikes on his own.
And in a USA Today survey of the 533 lawmakers — 100 senators and the rest House representatives — only 22 senators and 22 House members supported strikes.
Those opposed were far more — 19 senators and 130 House members. That still leaves a majority of them undecided, in both chambers, holding out some hope to the administration.
The White House has intensified the hard-sell in the past some days, starting with the president’s return from a mostly unsuccessful pitch to G-20 leaders in St Petersburg.
Obama is doing seven back-to-back interviews on Monday for broadcast later in the day, and he will be addressing the nation in a televised speech from the White House on Tuesday.
The president dropped in on a dinner hosted by vice-president Joe Biden at his residence, the Naval Observatory, Sunday night for seven Republican senators.
The administration has struggled to make its case as it has no smoking gun linking the chemical attacks to Assad, only circumstantial evidence.
The sell has been made harder by widespread war-weariness: US got out of one in 2011, Iraq, and is now in the process of ending the longest war in its history, Afghanistan.
(With agency inputs)