President Barack Obama will put plans for a U.S. military strike against Syria on hold if the Syrian government hands over its chemical weapons to international control.
The proposal surfaced as the president began a series of interviews with national broadcasters in which he hoped to encourage Congress and the public to support military action against Syria.
The administration believes the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Damascus, Aug. 21, in which hundreds of people were killed, including women and children.
Obama greeted the diplomatic proposal with caution but agreed it was a step in the right direction.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” Obama told NBC News Monday night. “This represents a potentially positive development. We are going to run this to ground.”
The initiative developed from a quick reply Secretary of State John Kerry gave to a question at a news conference early Sept. 9 about whether there was anything Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could do to stop a U.S. military strike.
“Sure. He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said, adding “But he isn’t about to.”
Although U.S. officials played down the response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the issue with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. Lavrov issued a statement saying Russia was urging Syria to agree to the proposal.
“We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Lavrov said, adding, “We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moallem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer.”
While Moallem did not commit to the plan he told reporters through an interpreter that Syria welcomed the initiative.
The diplomatic breakthrough has met with strong international support, the BBC reported.
UK Prime Minister, David Cameron said destroying the chemical weapons would be a “huge step forward,” but cautioned against it becoming a “distraction tactic.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Assad should make “rapid, serious and verifiable” commitments to the plan.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government to take up the idea, saying Monday that if the experts concluded chemicals had been used, he would seek support from the international community for the proposal.
“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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, citing “international discussions,” has postponed a test vote on congressional support for military action, which was set for Sept. 11.
Obama, who is to address the nation on the issue Sept. 10, said it was in the national security interest to make sure that the norm against use of chemical weapons is maintained.
“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 said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
“But we’re going to have to see specifics, 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,” the president said.