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Although saying the Russian move could develop into a “significant breakthrough”, Obama reiterated earlier White House officials who said they were “skeptical” of Syria’s commitment to any brokered deal, the Washington Post reported, citing NBC News interview transcripts.
“Between the statements that we saw from the Russians — the statement today from the Syrians — this represents a potentially positive development,” Obama told NBC News. The US president said that he would follow through to see how serious the Syrians could be.
The Obama administration said earlier that it will take a “hard look” at the Russian proposal, but says it remains skeptical.
Early on Monday, Russia seized on a remark US Secretary of State John Kerry made at a press conference during his visit to London in which he appeared to offer Syria a way to avert a strike if it were to hand over its prohibited weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Syria to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and put its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon immediately endorsed the idea.
But Kerry phoned Lavrov to say that his comment was hypothetical while the White House initially called the secretary of state’s ‘proposal’ rhetorical.
The Syrian response to the proposal came quickly.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who happened to be visiting Moscow, said during a press conference: “The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes this initiative to remove chemical weapons to ensure the safety of our citizens and the security of our country”.
Russia’s diplomatic moves came as US National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters that failure to punish the Syrian government for alleged chemical weapons attacks which killed hundreds near the capital Damascus “could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our country safe.”
The government of Syrian Bashar Al Assad has denied involvement in the attack and said it was orchestrated by rebel factions trying to undermine the mission of a UN inspections team which arrived in Damascus two weeks ago to investigate a similar attack in March.
“Leaders in Tehran must know the United States means what we say,” Rice said. “If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally, Syria, uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran?”
But as the day wore on and the Russian proposal made headlines in the media, the momentum appeared to but the Obama administration in a difficult position.
Later in the afternoon, White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said that Washington would welcome Syria giving up its chemical weapons in a verifiable way so that they can be accounted and destroyed.
“That’s the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve – to make sure that he can’t use them again. That would be terrific,” he said.
“But unfortunately the track record to date…doesn’t give you a lot of confidence. We want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed and we will.”
After failing to convince the G20 to support his plans to punish Syria, Obama now has to try and win over his biggest critics – the American people. He is expected to make a televised address on Tuesday to convince voters and Congress that there is not alternative to the military option.
US public opinion is still against any military action in Syria: A Fox News poll revealed that 61 per cent of Americans oppose hitting Syria.
A CNN/ORC poll showed that more than 70 per cent of respondents did not believe hitting Syria would significantly serve US goals. More than 70 per cent also said it’s not in US interests to strike Syria.
The UN, the Holy See, China and the BRICS grouping have all called on the US to pursue diplomatic avenues to end the Syrian civil war. A number of experts say that bombing the Syrian government will make a bad situation worse.