White House Taking “Hard Look” At Syria Proposal To Avoid Strike

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Secretary of State John Kerry confers with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013

The White House said Monday that the United States will take a “hard look” at a proposal from the Russian government for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles to the international community, a move Press Secretary Jay Carney said is a “potential avenue” forward, even as military planning for a strike continues.

The surprise turn of events began Monday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry floated a hypothetical scenario in which the Assad government could avert an attack by turning over all its chemical weapons. The Russian government then embraced that hypothetical, calling on Assad to turn over chemical weapons to the international community for disposal. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem then appeared to endorse it, the Associated Press reported.

At a London press conference, Kerry was asked how Assad could avoid a U.S. military strike. Kerry replied, “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 a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Administration officials said they are deeply skeptical of the proffer by the Russians and Assad regime’s acceptance, blaming the Syrian government for the deaths of more than 1,400 in a chemical weapons attack last month. But Carney said the Syrian efforts to avoid a strike are a sign that the American strategy is working.

“What I think you’re seeing, in a very fluid environment, is with the threat of military action, Syria and Russia, which has clearly been an ally of Syria, coming up with potential proposals that might, if implemented, avert military action,” Carney said. “Now I think it’s important to say that we will study this, we will work with the Russians and speak with them, but it is also important to note, of course, that, you know, we would have some skepticism about the Assad regime’s credibility.”

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken added that the U.S. would “welcome” a decision to turn over the chemical weapons. “We’ve seen the reports, we want to take a hard look at the proposal,” Blinken said. “We’ll obviously discuss the idea with the Russians. And of course, we would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons.”

Kerry’s comments caught American officials in Washington off guard. Blinken told reporters it wasn’t a proper offer from the United States, even if it was received as such. “I believe he was answering a question speaking hypothetically about what if Assad would do that,” he said.

But the White House said that the developments have no bearing on its request for congressional authorization to strike targets in Syria to prevent the further use of chemical weapons. “It’s very important to note that it’s clear that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the president is exerting,” Blinken said. “So it’s even more important that we don’t take the pressure off and that Congress give the president the authority he’s requested.”

Following a meeting with Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the White House talking points and Kerry’s hypothetical, saying a decision by the Syrian regime to turn over chemical weapons to the international community would be an “important step.”