Syria 'Welcomed' Russian Proposal to Destroy Its Chemical Weapons
U.S. State Department will take a "hard look" at proposal.
MOSCOW, Sept. 9, 2013— -- Syria today "welcomed" an offer by Russia to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control so that they could eventually be destroyed.
The U.S. State Department said it would take a "hard look" at the Russian proposal, but quickly added it was "skeptical" that Syria would follow through.
President Obama told ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer that the Syrian reaction was a "modestly positive development" and a military strike would "absolutely" be on pause if Syria's chemical weapons were put in the hands of an international body.
Syria's statement came very quickly after the proposal was made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in what he said was an attempt to avoid a U.S.-led strike on Syria.
"We call on the Syrian leadership not only agree on a statement of storage of chemical weapons under international control, but also its subsequent destruction, as well as about the full accession to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Lavrov said in a statement to reporters.
"We will immediately join the work with Damascus if establishing international control over chemical weapons in that country helps prevent attacks," Lavrov continued.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who met with Lavrov in Moscow earlier in the day, responded almost immediately.
"The Syrian Arab Republic welcomed the Russian initiative, based on the concerns of the Russian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country," Muallem told reporters, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
The proposal also received quick support from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"We'll take a step back, and we'll look at the Russian statement. We'll see what details lie behind it. But at this point, of course, we have serious skepticism because of everything Assad has done in the course of the last several years on chemical weapons," State Department Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
Lavrov's comments came after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested earlier in the day that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons by the end of the week an attack could be avoided.
"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," Kerry told reporters during a press conference in London with his British counterpart.
The State Department later walked Kerry's statement back, calling it an off-hand "rhetorical argument."
"His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons. Otherwise, he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment," Kerry's spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
According to a senior State Department official, Kerry called Lavrov from his plane and, after Lavrov referenced his remarks saying Russia would be willing to engage in the idea, Kerry denied that they were a formal suggestion by the United States. Kerry promised to look at any serious proposal, but expressed his skepticism.
Kerry also told Lavrov the Obama administration any such proposal would not delay its efforts to seek authorization from Congress for a military strike inside Syria.
Earlier this week Syrian President Bashar al-Assad explained why he had "not yet" signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
"Because Israel has WMD, and it has to sign, and Israel is occupying our land. So that's why we talked about Middle East, not Syria, not Israel. It should be comprehensive," he told PBS' and CBS News' Charlie Rose in an interview.
Assad denied his forces used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack on a Damascus suburb that the United States says killed over 1,400 people including hundreds of children. He said the United States has been unable to provide "a single shred of evidence" that his forces were responsible for the attack.
The German magazine Bild seemed to give some credence to Assad's claims this weekend, reporting that Syrian government forces might have carried out the chemical weapons attack without Assad's permission.
In response, Kerry argued that Syrian chemical weapons are tightly controlled and that there is "no question about responsibility."
Assad also warned of an unspecified retaliation if the United States and its allies go ahead with the attack.
During their press conference earlier in the day, around the same time that Kerry spoke in London, Lavrov and Muallem presented a united front against American-led calls for intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Lavrov said Moscow was focused on preventing a Western strike, which he warns will only destabilize the region and make a negotiated solution more difficult. He also denied he was working behind the scenes to hammer out a deal.
"There cannot be any deals made with regard to Russian policy that were concluded behind the Syrian people's back. That will not happen," he said.
Russia has remained Syria's strongest ally throughout the conflict. It continues to provide the Assad government with arms and economic support. It has also blocked efforts to pressure Assad in the United Nations Security Council.
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