(CNN) — A new possibility for a diplomatic solution in the standoff between Syria and the United States surfaced unexpectedly Monday as the war-torn country said it supported a proposal to hand over control of its chemical weapons.
But a key question loomed: Is that a viable option or simply a stall tactic as President Bashar al-Assad’s government tries to stave off U.S. military action?
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Moscow that his nation “welcomes” a proposal by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks on Monday: put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control to avert a U.S. military response over an alleged poison gas attack last month.
“I declare that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia’s initiative, on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country,” Moallem said. “We are also confident in the wisdom of the Russian government, which is trying to prevent an American aggression against our people.”
The comments came after Secretary of State John Kerry discussed a similar scenario, though the State Department stressed later Monday that al-Assad could not be trusted to relinquish his country’s chemical stockpiles.
And White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington remained “highly skeptical” of the Syrian regime.
Taking a ‘hard look’
Still, the United States will take a “hard look” at the plan, but “we can’t have this be another stalling tactic,” deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chemical weapons under international control. He hasn’t declared them. We’ve repeatedly called on him to do so. And he’s ignored prohibitions against them,” she said.
“So I think it’s important to keep in mind the context under which this Russian statement and this Syrian statement is happening, that this is only happening in the context of a threat of U.S. military action,” Harf added.
The new possibility of a diplomatic deal appeared to have started with comments from Kerry earlier Monday.
Speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry said that al-Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
The U.S. secretary of state described that as an impossible scenario.
“He isn’t about to do it,” Kerry said. “And it can’t be done, obviously.”
The State Department later sought to clarify Kerry’s comment as a “rhetorical argument,” and one U.S. official called it a “major goof,” adding that America’s top diplomat “clearly went off script.”
“There is no one in the administration who is taking this Syria proposal seriously,” the official said.
After he flew back from London, Kerry spoke with Lavrov, a senior administration official said. But it wasn’t clear whether the two officials had spoken before or after the Russian foreign minister’s meeting with his Syrian counterpart.
Several State Department representatives tried to clarify Kerry’s remarks later in the day.
“His point was that this brutal dictator (al-Assad) 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,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “That’s why the world faces this moment.”
Could ‘goof’ be solution?
The comments from Kerry and counterparts in Russia and Syria are the latest twist in an international crisis that has also become a fierce political battle in the United States.
The Obama administration says the al-Assad government was behind an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that it said killed more than 1,400 people.
Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike in response but has met resistance so far from lawmakers and the public who are concerned about the United States again intervening militarily in a foreign crisis.
On Monday, Harf said looking at the Russian proposal doesn’t mean the White House is backing down from its push to get authorization from Congress to strike Syria.
“In fact, the opposite. …. We think this is why it’s even more important that Congress votes to authorize the president to use military action against Syrian regime targets, because we can be clear that if we don’t give authorization to do so and we don’t respond, then Assad will see that as a green light to continue using these chemical weapons.”
The mixed messages had some analysts scratching their heads Monday.
“The question is, really, are the Russians serious? Are the Syrians serious?” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said. “Or is this really just a way to deflate the momentum the administration has been building?”
But could Kerry’s possible gaffe be the key to a diplomatic solution?
Commentator Andrew Sullivan says he hopes so.
“We have the possibility of two things: that Russia might actually act decisively to rein Assad in, and also support the only viable policy to accomplish what Obama wants — protecting the world from these vile weapons,” Sullivan wrote Monday. “I have no idea whether this is a serious move by Lavrov — but it sure seems so, and it presents a fascinating non-binary option. It would manage to bring Russia in to solving this problem, without its having to acquiesce to what Putin regards as American grand-standing. And it would surely have some traction at the UN. Sometimes, it seems, Kerry’s incompetence strikes gold. Here’s hoping.”
Reaction in the United States, beyond
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Russian proposal that Syria hand over control of its chemical weapons stockpile “deserves a thorough examination.”
The proposal would be acceptable under several conditions, Fabius said. Al-Assad should immediately hand over control of the weapons and allow their destruction, he said, calling for the U.N. Security Council to pass a binding resolution with “firm consequences.”
“Since the beginning, France has set two goals: punishment and deterrence,” he said. “That is why we are now asking specific, rapid and verifiable commitments by the Syrian regime.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she would “welcome” Lavrov’s call for Syria to transfer control of its chemical weapons “to prevent an international strike.”
“I believe that Russia can be most effective in encouraging the Syrian president to stop any use of chemical weapons and place all his chemical munitions, as well as storage facilities, under United Nations control until they can be destroyed,” the California Democrat said.
The possibility drew a reaction from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke about Syria at a White House event Monday.
If Syria’s government immediately surrendered its chemical weapons stockpiles to international control, “that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community’s efforts sincerely or be held to account.”