Russia Seizes on Kerry Comment on Syria Giving Up Weapons

Russia seized on a casual comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to urge that Syria turn over its arsenal of chemical weapons to international control to avert an American military strike.

“If the establishment of international control of chemical weapons in the country will help avoid military strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting with his Syrian counterpart in Moscow. Syria’s government said it welcomed the idea.

Russia jumped on a hypothetical comment by Kerry, who told reporters in London that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avert a threatened U.S. attack by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” While Kerry added immediately that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” the idea took on a life of its own.

Tony Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the administration is “going to take a hard look” at the Russian proposal, while adding that Assad’s track record “doesn’t give us a lot of confidence.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backing Obama’s plan for a strike on Syria, said today during a visit to the White House that it would be “an important step” if Assad “immediately surrendered” his weapons, “but this cannot be another excuse for delay.”

Easy to Hide

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate intelligence committee and backs Obama’s call for a “limited” attack on Syria, said she “would welcome” a move by Russia to encourage Assad to give up the weapons the U.S. says his regime used to kill more than 1,400 people outside of Damascus on Aug. 21.

Any proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons would run into at least two major obstacles, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive policy matters.

The move would require an extensive verification process because chemical weapons are easy to hide, they said. It isn’t clear who would send inspectors in on the ground to verify the dismantling of the weapons and how such a process could occur in the middle of a civil war, they said.

Even if the weapons could be collected and destroyed, there’s the danger that Assad could begin making more once inspectors leave, they said.

Calling Lavrov

In a phone conversation with Lavrov today, Kerry made clear that his comments about Syria surrendering its chemical weapons were rhetorical, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the call made from Kerry’s plane en route to Washington. While Kerry said the Obama administration would look at a serious proposal, he said it wouldn’t delay efforts in Congress to seek authorization for a strike, the official said.

The administration last week considered and rejected the idea of issuing an ultimatum to Syria that it would face a strike unless it handed over all of its chemical weapons, the official said.

‘Big Trick’

The Free Syrian Army, a U.S.-supported rebel group seeking to topple the Assad regime, rejects the Russian proposal as a “big trick” aimed at deceiving the U.S., according to Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the group’s high command.

“We don’t accept this maneuver,” Qassem said by phone from his post in Syria near the border with Turkey. “The aim of it is to confuse the whole world, including the U.S. and Congress,” he said.

Without retracting Kerry’s comment, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington today that “he was speaking rhetorically about a situation we thought had very low probability of happening. Clearly, we have some serious skepticism.”

Assad’s government called Russia’s proposal a constructive alternative to U.S. intervention.

“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian proposal, taking into account the concern of the Syrian leadership about the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and taking into account our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent American aggression against our people,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said today in Moscow.

UN Secretary-General

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he was “considering urging the Security Council to demand immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely destroyed.” He said he would make the request only after UN inspectors issue their report on chemical-weapons use in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an e-mailed statement that Russia’s plan merits a detailed review and may be acceptable provided that Syria makes a fast, verifiable commitment to turn over its chemical weapons, a fixed schedule is set for their destruction, and the Aug. 21 attack is referred to the International Criminal Court.

International Push

Kerry’s comment came as the top U.S. diplomat continued his push for international backing for what he described today as an “unbelievably small, limited” military strike that he said would be enough to halt Syria’s use of chemical weapons and hasten a political settlement to the 2 1/2-year civil war.

As Congress prepared to debate a U.S. intervention, Kerry sought to reassure the public that the Obama administration won’t let a Syrian campaign evolve into a years-long commitment with ground troops, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We’re not talking about war, we’re not going to war,” Kerry said at the press conference in London today after a three-day mission to Europe. He spoke of a “limited, very targeted, very short-term effort.”

Such promises haven’t helped the administration win support in Congress, where a resolution to authorize military force continues to lose ground.

In the latest setback for the White House, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said today she couldn’t support a military strike “at this time.” Instead, she backed a proposal by Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, that would give Assad 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban.

‘Falls Short’

“The current Senate resolution falls short because it calls for military action in Syria without carefully looking at diplomatic or alternative solutions,” Heitkamp said in a statement.

Kerry’s tour yielded a European Union appeal to work through the UN, French determination to side with the U.S., support from several Arab countries and denunciations of Assad from Britain, the American ally in prior Middle Eastern wars which will stay out of this one.

West Texas Intermediate oil fell from a two-year high as Obama struggled to convince Congress of the need for a military strike. WTI for October delivery dropped $1.01 to settle at $109.52 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices rose to $110.53 on Sept. 6, the highest close since May 3, 2011.

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