Sen. Lugar to Russia: Let's team up

The top Republican on the Senate foreign affairs panel has offered Russia a partnership to take control of Syria's chemical weapons as a first step toward easing tensions with the United States.

Speaking with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, Lugar said the idea could help to bring the U.S. and Russia closer together at a time of heightened tensions over Syria. Lugar was in Moscow this month to build support for the reauthorization of his legislation that allows U.S. financial and technical support for dismantling nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. That program is set to expire next year.

“I took the opportunity with the deputy ministers of defense and foreign affairs to suggest that there is another cooperative threat reduction that we could do with Russia,” Lugar said. “The United States and Russia, two great powers, with a lot of experience with chemical weapons, would plan together for a contingency that if the Assad regime falls or there is a general disintegration of order in Syria, we would be prepared as two nations to take over those chemical weapons and destroy them.”

“I suggested this as a cooperative threat reduction program, because we want to have, I believe, a stronger relation with Russia. And it occurred to me this was a possible opening.”

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The proposal comes as U.S. officials met with their Turkish counterparts in Ankara on Thursday to discuss plans for dealing with the issue. Separately, the government of Bashar Assad has offered assurances to Russia that it would not use chemical weapons, the Associated Press reports.

Syria is believed to have mustard gas, nerve agents and other chemical weapons. President Obama warned this week that their use would be a “red line” that could prompt U.S. military action.

“Leaving aside all of the debate which has preceded, it seemed to me this was an opportunity for a breakthrough,” Lugar said. “And at least the reaction of some Russians was that this is very interesting; others said after all Syria is not a member of the chemical weapons convention. 

“I think there is a general fear — and President Obama expressed this — that a red line is there if the weapons get used or if there are moved or what have you, that the United States might take action. That would be a unilateral step. I'm suggesting, if possible, bilateral planning and bilateral action.”

Lugar said he hasn't talked to the White House or the State Department about his proposal.

Administration officials told The Los Angeles Times that they have contingency plans in place to infiltrate special forces into Syria and use precision air strikes to destroy the weapons.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been urging the United States to work with allies Turkey and Jordan to gain control of Syria's chemical weapons if the situation gets out of control.

“My view is that Turkey and Jordan understand the complexities of the neighborhood and the factions inside Syria,” House Foreign Affairs nonproliferation panel chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill after a hearing on the issue last month. “Both have well-trained armies and both have an immediate interest in preventing the spread of these chemical weapons.”

“I think they're well-positioned to be the lion's share of the solution to this problem,” Royce said. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov played down the threat Thursday, telling the Associated Press that Damascus “has given us very clear assurances that the Syrian government… will do everything to ensure secured and guaranteed storage of the chemical weapons. The weapons will be stored where they are now;”

“We were assured a very strict control is exercised over the security of the chemical weapons storage and that there is no danger the situation might fall out of control,” Gatilov reportedly said.

In a separate briefing with reporters Thursday, Global Security Newswire reports, Lugar said it wasn't clear the Russians would accept a renewal of his 1992 agreement, crafted with then-Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), to help former Soviet states – including Russia – dismantle their non-conventional weapons.