US President Barack Obama has said he will put plans for a US military strike against Syria on hold if the country agrees to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international control.
But he said he was sceptical the Syrian government would follow through.
As the US Congress debates authorising an attack, Russia on Monday proposed Syria relinquish its chemical weapons.
The US accuses Damascus of war crimes including use of chemical weapons, allegations denied by the regime.
The US president on Monday gave a series of television interviews aimed at building support among a US Congress and public wary of new military action in the Middle East.
Damascus would need to identify exactly which and what quantities of chemicals were stored at which location. Such a declaration would need to be verified, probably by UN inspectors. Could all sides in the conflict be persuaded to abide by a ceasefire to allow UN officials access to sites to do their work?”
The president maintains a limited strike is needed to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons and to deter it from using them again.
“I want to make sure that norm against use of chemical weapons is maintained,” Mr Obama told ABC News.
“That’s in our national security interest. If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference.”
Asked by Diane Sawyer of ABC News if he would put plans for an attack on pause should Mr Assad yield control of his chemical weapons, Mr Obama answered: “Absolutely, if in fact that happened.”
Support in Congress for a measure authorising attacks on Syria has remained relatively low, with more than 230 of the 433 members in the House of Representatives reportedly either opposed to or likely to oppose strikes as of Friday.
In addition, opinion polls suggest Americans remain wary of a strike against Syria, with only one in five believing that a failure to respond to chemical weapons attacks there would embolden other governments, according to an Associated Press poll concluded on Monday.
Many US politicians and members of the public remain concerned that military action could draw the nation into a prolonged war and spark broader hostilities in the region.
Syria’s chemical weapons
- CIA believes Syria’s chemical weapons can be “delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets”
- Syria believed to possess mustard gas and sarin, and also tried to develop more toxic nerve agents such as VX gas
- Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
Sources: CSIS, RUSI
Mr Obama’s remarks came after Russia asked Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed, in an attempt to avoid US military strikes.
The idea appeared to have stemmed from an inadvertent suggestion by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
When asked at a news conference whether there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid a military strike, Mr Kerry replied that he could hand over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week.
Although US officials subsequently said Mr Kerry had made a “rhetorical argument” rather than a serious officer, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said he presented the proposal during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.
Mr Lavrov revealed that he had urged Mr Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction”.
He said he had also told Mr Muallem that Syria should then fully join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Mr Muallem told reporters through an interpreter that Syria welcomed the initiative, and he praised Russia for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people”.
Mr Obama on Monday told NBC News he was “sceptical” of Syria’s professed interest in relinquishing its weapons, because “this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years.”
But he suggested the matter would never have arisen in talks between Russia and Syria “unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike, and I don’t think now is the time for us to let up on that”.
US allies have also reacted cautiously:
- UK Minister David Cameron said the destruction of the weapons would be a “huge step forward”, but warned that it should not be used as a “distraction tactic”
- French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on Mr Assad to make “rapid, serious and verifiable” commitments to the plan
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was an “interesting proposal” but added that she hoped real action would follow
Moscow has been Mr Assad’s main international ally throughout Syria’s two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Russia has blocked three resolutions against Syria in the UN Security Council, and has dismissed US claims that Mr Assad’s forces carried out a chemical attack in Damascus on 21 August, killing 1,429 people.
Mr Assad’s government blames the attack on rebels fighting to overthrow him, in a conflict that the UN says has claimed some 100,000 lives.
The UN sent weapons experts into Damascus to investigate the attack.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that if the experts concluded chemicals had been used, he would consider asking the Security Council to approve a “safe zone” in Syria where the weapons could be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Syrian leader gave an interview to US network PBS in which he warned the US against intervention, saying the Middle East was “on the brink of explosion”.
“You’re going to pay the price if you’re not wise with dealing with terrorists. There are going to be repercussions,” he said.
“The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, different factions, different ideologies. You have everything in this decision now.”
Mr Assad did not explain whether his comment was a threat that Syrian-backed groups such as Hezbollah would launch retaliation, or a warning that strikes would bolster al-Qaeda-linked groups.
He also denied using chemical weapons saying there was “no evidence” to hold his government responsible for the 21 August attack.