Obama sees possible breakthrough in Syria weapons proposal
By Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed (Reuters)WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he saw a possible breakthrough in the crisis with Syria after Russia proposed that its ally Damascus hand over its chemical weapons for destruction, which could avert planned U.S. military strikes.
September 10, 2013, 2:37 pm TWN
But Obama, speaking in a series of television interviews, remained skeptical and pushed ahead to persuade a reluctant and divided Congress to back potential U.S. action, saying the threat of force was needed to press Syria to make concessions.
In an extraordinary day of diplomacy over the war-wracked Middle Eastern country, Russia seized on an apparently throwaway public remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to fashion a new approach that could save face for all sides.
"My preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem," Obama told NBC. He said an agreement for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons to international control would not solve the "underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria."
He added: "But if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference."
"It's possible that we can get a breakthrough," Obama told CNN, although there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over more than two years of civil war.
"We're going to run this to ground," he said. "John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."
In Congress, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid pushed back a Senate test vote on possible U.S. strikes that had been scheduled for Wednesday as lawmakers evaluate the Russian plan.
The vote is still expected this week, and a more contentious vote would later be held in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Obama has argued that Assad, fighting to continue his family's four-decade rule, must be punished for what Washington says was a poison gas attack on rebel areas that killed over 1,400 people on August 21.
The dramatic diplomatic twist in weeks of high-tension international wrangling came when Kerry was asked by a reporter during a visit to London whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a U.S. military strike.
"Sure. 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 the full and total accounting. But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which Assad denies his forces used.