The White House said Monday it would take a hard took at Syria’s offer to give up its chemical weapons but expressed skepticism that country was willing to do so.
Deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told reporters the White House would “welcome a decision by Syria to give up its chemical weapons” and was reviewing reports that Russia was urging Syria to do so.
He also expressed doubt that Syria would follow up on its offer, noting that until Monday, Syria had denied having chemical weapons. And Blinken questioned the feasibility of the plan, saying it “would certainly take time, resources and probably a peaceful environment to deal with it.”
Blinken said the administration had not yet talked about the possible deal with Russia.
Blinken spoke in reaction to a series of developments that seemed to offer the Obama administration a separate path from its request for Congress to grant it authorization to strike Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in London that the Syrian regime could avoid a military strike by turning over its chemical weapons.
“Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” he said. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay. And allow the full and total accounting for that, but he isn't about to do it.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seized on those comments, saying in a press conference that the Kremlin would “immediately” begin pressuring Assad to turn over his chemical weapons.
“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said, according to The Associated Press.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” he said.
Russia has been Syria’s greatest ally in the standoff, and the U.S. has blamed it for blocking consensus on Syria at the United Nations.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem followed up Lavrov’s remarks with a statement that his country would be willing to put its chemical weapons under international control, according to The Associated Press.
President Obama is set to address the nation about the strike on Tuesday night. He faces a skeptical public, and it appears, at this point, that his request to Congress for authorization would fail.
That could make another way out of the standoff appealing to the administration, though Blinken and White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday gave no indication the administration would not push ahead with efforts to get Congress to approve a strike.
Carney avoided directly answering questions about whether Kerry intended to open the door to a deal with his remarks.
“We'll have discussions with the Russians,” Carney said, saying those negotiations were on a "parallel track" with efforts to lobby Congress behind a strike.
He also stressed that the offer from Syria “would have never been forthcoming” without the threat of military action, and the White House did not want Congress to wait while the president evaluated the proposals.
“It is because that pressure exists that we cannot let up. ... We need to make clear to Assad, as well as the Russians and others, that we're very serious,” Carney said.
The State Department appeared to walk back Kerry’s comment, calling it a “rhetorical argument.”
“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts can not be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment.”