ABOVE: US President Barack Obama says a possible diplomatic solution in Syria a sign of progress
WASHINGTON – The White House says President Barack Obama has spoken with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper about chemical weapons use in Syria.
The two leaders talked by phone Monday as Obama was seeking congressional approval for a military strike in Syria but also was considering a potential deal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles to avoid a U.S. attack.
The White House says Obama and Harper agreed there must be a strong international response to chemical weapons use to ensure that similar atrocities won’t occur in the future.
Obama told NBC News in an interview Monday that he remains skeptical that Syria will follow through and turn over its stockpile, so he’s taking a statement from Damascus, quote, “with a grain of salt initially.” But he says he would prefer to have a diplomatic solution to the crisis rather than launch a military attack, and called it “a potentially positive development.”
The possibility arose Monday when Syria swiftly welcomed a suggestion floated by Secretary of State John Kerry to move all of the country’s chemical weapons under international control. The White House said it was considering Syria’s statement with skepticism and continued its efforts to sell the notion of a strike to reluctant Congress members.
The diplomatic opening followed a remarkable chain of events that started with Kerry’s suggestion, followed by a proposal from Russia and immediate endorsement by the U.N. secretary-general.
The developments could provide President Barack Obama with a way out of a messy political and foreign policy bind, though the matter was far from settled.
The White House, expressing deep doubts about the intentions of President Bashar Assad, continued to build its case for military action.
Kerry told reporters in London early Monday that Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the use of chemical weapons by surrendering control of “every single bit” of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push its ally Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert U.S. strikes. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately embraced the proposal.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged acceptance, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Lavrov’s proposal “deserves close examination.”
That seemed to raise prospects for avoiding an expansion of the Syrian civil war, and spokesmen said the Obama administration would take a “hard look” at the proposal.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, after a meeting with Obama, said a Syria move to dump chemical weapons would be an important, though she warned it “cannot be another excuse for delay and obstruction.”
And state Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. had “serious skepticism” about Syria’s statement because it might be merely a stalling tactic. She said Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.
In fact, she said the developments made it even more important for Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria as a means for pushing Assad to actually get rid of chemical weapons stocks.
Obama prepared his final public arguments for military action before Congress holds its first vote on the issue this week. But he faces a decidedly uphill fight – and serious doubts by the American public.
A new Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria. Most of those surveyed said they believe even limited strikes would lead to a long-term military commitment. The poll was released Monday and conducted Sept. 6-8.
Obama was taping six television network interviews for late Monday and administration officials were briefing more members of Congress as they returned from summer recess. Obama will address the nation Tuesday night.
The U.S. accuses Assad’s government of being behind an attack using sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Some other estimates of the deaths are lower, but there is wide agreement that chemical weapons were used.
In an interview broadcast Monday on “CBS This Morning,” Assad denied responsibility, accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a “single shred of evidence,” and warned that air strikes against his nation could bring retaliation. Pressed on what that might include, Assad responded, “I’m not fortune teller.”
Later Monday, Syria’s foreign minister, meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, addressed the idea of getting rid of any chemical weapons.
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” said al-Moallem.
Al-Moallem’s statement appeared to mark an acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Assad to avoid the U.S. military attack.
But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.
U.S. officials in Washington initially said they were surprised by Kerry’s comments, which came at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and in response to a question about what, if anything, Assad could do to stop the U.S. from punishing it for the use of chemical weapons.
“Sure,” Kerry replied. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
In a speech on Monday, Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice reiterated that the president had decided it is in U.S. interests to carry out limited strikes. And the State Department moved to play down Kerry’s comment.
“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an email sent to reporters. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Connie Cass in Washington and Edith Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.