Report: Syria accepts proposal to give up chemical weapons

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WASHINGTON — It’s a stunning turn of events that could change everything on Syria — if it pans out.

Facing the threat of a U.S. military strike, the country’s leaders Tuesday reportedly accepted a Russian proposal to turn over its chemical weapons.

The development, reported by Syrian state television and Russia’s Interfax news agency, came a day after the idea bubbled up in the wake of what appeared to be an off-the-cuff comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

While U.S. officials said Tuesday that they remain leery of a possible delaying tactic by Syria and its Russian allies, a White House official speaking on background said the proposal was intriguing enough to back down from its urgent calls for a quick vote on a congressional use-of-force resolution targeting Syria.

France and Russia said they would offer proposals for a chemical weapons surrender to the Security Council. But Russia said a French proposal for a U.N. resolution holding the Syrian government accountable for its alleged use of chemical weapons was “unacceptable,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press office.

Even if such a proposal gains U.N. approval, yet to be worked out are the details, such as where the arms would go, who would safeguard them and how the world could be sure Syria had handed over its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.

French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama have agreed to work together to explore the Russian proposal, a White House official said.

And a bipartisan group of senators began work on a resolution that would keep the U.S. military on its leash if the United Nations passes a resolution saying Syria used chemical weapons, as U.S. officials allege, and ordering the country to hand over such weapons.

The United States, France, Great Britain and other nations suspect the Syrian government of using chemical weapons repeatedly in its two-year-old civil war, including an August 21 incident that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people. Syrian officials have blamed rebel forces.

Growing support

Despite the lack of details, the Russian proposal was gaining traction around the world. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed support for the concept. Tuesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said it would safeguard stability in the region. Syrian ally Iran welcomed the proposal, and Germany expressed interest.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France would go to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday with a proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons but said France — whose president has already expressed a willingness to punish Syria over its alleged use of the arms — will not accept delays in the transfer.

“We need quick results,” Fabius said.

European Union Foreign Affairs Secretary Catherine Ashton said she supported the French plan to bring the issue to the Security Council, saying the proposal “now needs to be fully worked up as quickly as possible.”

Even Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a proponent of a military strike on Syria, said the idea was worth exploring.

“I’m very, very skeptical,” he told CNN’s “New Day.” “But the fact is, you can’t pass up this opportunity — if it is one.”

McCain is one of the key players crafting the Senate resolution, which would be an alternative to the use-of-force resolution proposed by the administration. It would allow the president to deploy U.S. forces against Syria if the United Nations doesn’t pass a resolution declaring chemical weapons use and setting a deadline for their handover.

The senators have not decided whether the resolution would include limits on the use of U.S. force, such as sending troops to the country.

Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia’s working on a “workable, clear, specific plan” and said it would be presented soon.

Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Kerry said the United States would look forward to the plan but will demand that it be brought forward and implemented quickly.

“We’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long,” he said.

A senior administration official involved in Syria policy said that U.S. officials are talking with France and others about how the proposal could be quickly advanced and to find ways to determine whether Russia and Syria are serious about the idea.

“There are a lot of good questions and there is understandable skepticism,” the official said. “But today is better than yesterday. We would rather have a situation where it is possible there is a diplomatic solution in the offing than one with no choice but to pursue military action.”

Inauspicious beginning

The idea surfaced Monday, when Kerry — responding to a reporter asking what Syria could do to stop a U.S. attack — suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

“He isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.

His spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, sought to roll back the comments, saying the secretary was simply responding to a “hypothetical.”

But Lavrov quickly seized on the comment, suggesting publicly that it would be a way to avoid a U.S. strike on Syria.

Administration officials at first batted down the proposal.

A U.S. official who declined to be identified by name said Monday afternoon that no one in the administration was taking the proposal seriously.

But before long, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was saying the United States would take a “hard look” at the idea. White House spokesman Jay Carney said administration officials were “highly skeptical” but had to take a look.

Obama’s take

By Monday night, in an interview, Obama was calling the idea a “potentially positive development.”

“We’re going to run this to ground,” Obama said. He said the United States will work “to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”

But, he said, the idea could simply be a stalling tactic, and Obama said he will continue to press his case for military action. He is scheduled to address the nation Tuesday night.

“If we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference,” Obama said Monday. “On the other hand, if we don’t maintain and move forward without a credible threat of military pressure, I don’t think we’ll actually get the kind of agreement I’d like to see.”

While the Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced that he would be voting against the resolution because he doesn’t feel a vital U.S. security interest is at stake, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said now isn’t the time to let off the gas.

“The only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that President Obama has made it plain and clear that the United States will act if we must,” Reid said. “Our credible threat of force has made these diplomatic discussions with Syria possible. And the United States shouldn’t withdraw from the direction we are taking as a country.”

The opposition Free Syrian Army urged the world not to buy into the idea of transferring control of the chemical weapons, which it called a trick.

“Here we go again with the regime trying to buy more time in order to keep on the daily slaughter against our innocent civilians and to fool the world,” said Louay al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the group.

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