WASHINGTON - The United States said Monday afternoon it will take a hard look at a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control as a political settlement loomed on the horizon.
"We'll have to take a hard look at the Russian statement ... so we understand exactly what the Russians are proposing here," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Syria's chemical weapons in a phone call. "Clearly we have some serious skepticism," she said.
A US government official pointed out that there is no mechanism to implement what the Russians are proposing.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the only body that has monitoring power over chemical arms, the official noted. But the OPCW only has jurisdiction over signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria is not a member.
Foreign Minister Lavrov, who called a news conference to announce the proposal, said he had already conveyed the idea to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at talks in Moscow.
Moualem, who spoke to reporters through an interpreter after Russia expressed hope the proposal could avert military strikes against Syria, accepted the Russian proposal.
"I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative,
motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people," he said.
The Russian foreign minister was responding to a comment by Kerry during a press briefing in London with British Foreign Minister William Hague on Monday. "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,"
Kerry said, throwing up his hands in London. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
In response to questions about the Russian proposal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that he may ask the Security Council to demand Syria move its chemical arms stocks to Syrian sites where they can be safely stored and destroyed.
In a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he is already considering “certain proposals that I could make to the Security Council” when presenting the report of UN investigation team, which inspected the sites in Syria where the chemical weapons were used. These include urging the Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed, Ban said.
He also urged Damascus to become a party to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Syria is not a party CWC, but it is a party to the Geneva (Protocol) of 1925 which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons, according to the OPCW.
In response to a question about how quickly the UN can act, if Syria agrees to a transfer of its alleged chemical weapons stock under international control, Ban said he is sure that the international community will take “very swift action” to make safely store and destroy the chemical weapons stocks.
Meanwhile, in an interview with PBS' and CBS' Charlie Rose, Assad argued that Kerry had not presented a "single shred of evidence." 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 Aug 21 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." "The chemical weapons in Syria we have tracked for some period of time now are controlled in a very tight manner by the Assad regime," Kerry said. "Under any circumstances, the Assad regime is the Assad regime.
"The regime issues orders, and we have high-level regime [members] who have been caught issuing these instructions, with the results going directly to President Assad." He later added: "What does [Assad] offer? Words that are contradicted by fact."
Kerry, as he has done for the past week, also tried to walk a fine line between sounding a battle cry in Syria and claiming the United States was "not going to war," a reflection of how difficult the Obama Administration is finding it to sell an attack on Syria.
When arguing for the need to strike, Kerry compared the chemical weapons attacks to the Holocaust, which reportedly killed more than 6 million, and the Rwandan genocide, during which almost 1 million people died in the 1990s.
"If one party believes he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with chemical weapons, he will never get to the negotiation table," Kerry argued. "A resolution will never get done on the battlefield. It will be done at the negotiating table. But we have to get to that table."
But at the same time, he also tried to downplay the scope of the US plans, saying an attack was not an act of war.
"We're not talking about war. We are not going to war," Kerry said. "We are going to be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable, 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."
After the news conference, Kerry left for Washington to lobby Congress to authorise the military strike in Syria.
Similarly, Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security adviser, said Washington would not ease pressure on Damascus despite the Russian proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday said the Senate will vote on a motion to debate the resolution endorsing “limited military action” in retaliation for Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
The White House said an additional 14 nations had signed a list of countries supporting a “strong international response” to what it says is Syria’s use of chemical weapons.