White House and State Department officials said they are open to Russia’s proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and then destroy them, even though they are sceptical about the Syrians’ sincerity.
“We’d have to take a hard look. Any transfer of chemical weapons to international control would be a positive development,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told MSNBC on Monday. He quickly added, though, that the White House was “sceptical” of the seriousness of the offer.
The White House’s move is the latest in a rapidly progressing series of events Monday. Here’s what has happened:
- Secretary of State John Kerry made what appeared to be an offhand remark in London early Monday, suggesting that Syria could potentially avoid a U.S. attack if it handed over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to the international community in the next week.
- The State Department walked back the remarks; spokeswoman Marie Harf called them “rhetorical” and “hypothetical.”
- Nevertheless, Russia immediately jumped on the offer. “If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
- Syria then said it “welcomed” Russia’s offer.
As has frequently been the case with Syria, the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s offer is muddy. At the same time it is walking back Kerry’s statements as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” it’s also signaling a willingness to pursue the Russian proposal, and taking credit for Russia’s and Syria’s willingness to negotiate over chemical weapons as being sparked by the threat of military action.
What happens next is also unclear. Both the State Department and White House said that the new developments don’t immediately change their plans for action in Syria, as Congress debates whether to authorise limited military strikes.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in his press briefing today that congressional approval of strikes is especially important now to keep up pressure on Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
Obama is also preparing a media blitz to explain his plan on Syria, while the public’s opposition to such strikes surges.
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