The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday said it welcomed a Russian proposal to avert U.S. military strikes by having Damascus turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors. The statement by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Moscow offered the first indication that a diplomatic solution may be possible to the international standoff that has evolved since an apparent chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held suburbs outside Damascus on August 21.
The attacks, which killed more than 1,400 civilians, brought world-wide condemnation, and vows of military action by President Obama, who had previously described the use of such banned weapons as a “red line.” But Russia, which is Syria’s chief patron, blocked efforts to generate a response by the U.N. Security Council, and the United States has struggled to build support for unilateral military strikes.
On Monday, while meeting with Moualem, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would ask Syria to relinquish control of its chemical weapons to international monitors in order to prevent a U.S. strike. Lavrov also called on Syria to sign and ratify the Convention on Chemical Weapons, which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.
“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country will avoid strikes, we will immediately begin working with Damascus,” Lavrov said. “We call on the Syrian leadership not only to agree on a statement of storage of chemical weapons under international supervision, but also to their subsequent destruction.”
Moualem said Syria “welcomes the Russian initiative,” but did not say whether his country would agree to what Russia was asking. “We also welcome the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent American aggression against our people,” Moulaem said.
Hours earlier, in London, Secretary of State John F. Kerry sketched out a similar transfer-of-control scenario, then dismissed it, after being asked by a reporter whether there was anything that Assad could do to avoid an attack. “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said. “But he isn’t about to.”
State Department spokeswomen Jennifer Psaki said that Kerry was making a “rhetorical” point in the face of Assad’s long-standing intransigence. “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,” Psaki said. “That’s why the world faces this moment.”
There was no immediate State Department response to the proposal by Russia, or to the response by Syria. Obama has said U.S. intelligence and video documentation clearly show the Syrian government was responsible for last month’s strikes, part of a bloody civil conflict that has generated more than 100,000 casualties in the past 2 1/2 years . Obama and Kerry are working to win enough support for congressional authorization of a strike.
In an interview Sunday with CBS News, Assad denied that his government had used chemical weapons and warned the American people not to get involved in another Middle Eastern war.
The Syrian dictator said Kerry’s effort to generate support for a strike reminded him of the “big lie” told in early 2003 by then-president George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, in justifying what became the U.S. war in Iraq. Powell based his argument for that war on claims that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, which later proved false.
Kerry emphasized to reporters in London that any strikes ordered by the United States would be limited and would not resemble the lengthy actions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have left a legacy of public resentment.
“We’re not talking about war. We’re not going to war,” Kerry said, describing the proposed strikes as similar to action taken by then-president Ronald Reagan against Libya after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.
“We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground in any kind of prolonged effort, in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war,” Kerry said. “That is exactly what we’re talking about doing. An unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
His words sparked a fresh round of criticism, however, from people who said that describing U.S. plans as “unbelievably small” and “limited” was hardly a good way to take a moral stand against actions the United States has said are untenable.
“Kerry says #Syria strike would be “unbelievably small” — that is unbelievably unhelpful,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on Twitter.
In London on Monday, both Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed the idea that there was “still time” to avoid consequences for what Obama has called a “horrific” chemical weapons attack. “There can’t be a negotiated settlement if the Assad regime is allowed to eradicate the moderate opposition,” Hague said.
During his overseas trip. Kerry appears to have won backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the idea of a U.S. military strike. Qatar also agreed to join a statement, signed by 11 U.S. allies who attended last week’s Group of 20 summit in Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons, holding Assad responsible for the strike and calling for a “strong international response.”
The initial signatories were Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Britain and the United States. Germany signed a day later. The statement was shepherded by the administration after the G-20 failed to agree on a common position. The G-20 nations that did not sign included Brazil, India and Indonesia, along with China and Russia, Assad’s principal arms supplier.
Kerry said other Arab countries had also agreed to sign it and would “make their own announcements in the next 24 hours.”
On Saturday, the 28-member European Union unanimously agreed to a similar statement. But neither document mentioned support for a military strike, and the E.U. said there should be no action against Syria until U.N. investigators who visited the site of the alleged chemical attack issue their report later this month. The administration has said the U.N. report is irrelevant because the investigators’ mandate is only to determine whether a chemical weapons attack occurred – which is not in dispute at this point – not who carried it out.
Although administration officials have indicated that they have wide allied backing for military intervention, the only other nations to publicly indicate support are Turkey and France, which said last week it wants to wait for the U.N. report. In Britain, Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for authorization to join the United States in a military strike.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been among the leading arms suppliers to the Syrian rebels and have long backed unspecified direct foreign intervention in Syria. Although neither has said whether it would participate in a U.S.-led military strike, Attiyah said Sunday that his government was considering how it could be of assistance. Qatar sent bombers and other resources to aid the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.
Speaking through an interpreter, Attiyah said that “the Syrian people over more than three years has been demanding or asking the international community to intervene.”
“Several parties who support the Syrian regime,” he said, had been intervening in that country since the war began with an uprising against the government in 2011. He was apparently referring to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.
Assad, interviewed by Charlie Rose of CBS News in Damascus, said that “it had not been a good experience” for the American people “to get involved in the Middle East in wars and conflicts.” He added that “they should communicate to their Congress and to their leadership in Washington not to authorize a strike.”
Many of Assad’s comments, which were conveyed by Rose in a telephone report from Beirut on CBS’s “Face the Nation” ahead of their broadcast Monday, appeared designed to play on what opinion polls have shown is strong public opposition to U.S. intervention and indicated that Assad is closely following U.S. media reports. Rose said the Syrian president “denied that he had anything to do with the [chemical] attack. He denied that he knew there was a chemical attack. . . . He said ‘I can neither confirm or deny’ ” that Syria possesses chemical weapons.
“He suggested, as he has before, that perhaps the rebels had something to do” with the reported attack, Rose said, and he quoted the Syrian leader as saying there had been no evidence that he had used chemical weapons against his people. If the Obama administration had evidence, he said, Assad suggested “they should show that evidence and make their case.”
Assad said that his forces “were obviously as prepared as they could be for a strike,” Rose reported, and that he was “very, very concerned” that an American attack would tip the military balance of the war in the rebels’ favor.
Syria won some indirect support of its own Sunday as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a Baghdad news conference with his Iranian counterpart that Iraq “will not be a base for any attack nor will it facilitate any such attack on Syria.”
Speaking during his first visit abroad since his appointment last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that U.S. intervention in Syria risks igniting a regionwide war. “Those who are shortsighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone,” Zarif said.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post. DeYoung reported from London; Wilgoren reported from Washington. Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.
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