The White House yesterday gave a cautious welcome to a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, opening up the first real chance of a political settlement to the crisis since hundreds of civilians died in an attack on a Damascus suburb last month.
US deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken said "it would be terrific" if Syria followed through on a reported offer by its foreign minister to place chemical stockpiles under the control of international observers. But he expressed scepticism whether it would do so. "Unfortunately, the track record to date does not inspire a lot of confidence," Blinken said.
The White House said it would now work with the Russians to explore the deal proposed yesterday by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, after an apparent off-the-cuff remark by the US secretary of state John Kerry. The administration stressed that these discussions would take place in parallel with continued efforts in Washington to persuade US lawmakers to authorise the use of military force against Syria.
The diplomatic scramble began in London when Kerry suggested that the only way for Syria to avoid the threat of a US attack would be for it to hand over all its chemical weapons within a week.
The significance of the remarks was downplayed by the Department of State, which said he had been speaking rhetorically, but Kerry's language was immediately seized on by Lavrov, who raised the prospect of international observers supervising such a handover.
"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.
"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," Lavrov said after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.
David Cameron responded positively but cautiously to Russia's move, telling parliament that if it was a genuine offer, it should be regarded as a big step forward.
No 10 initially indicated that the Kerry proposal was not serious, pointing out that the idea had not been raised during the lengthy discussion on Syria at the G20 dinner in St Petersburg. They added the focus should be on Bashar al-Assad's record with chemical weapons. But in a Commons debate, Cameron said it would be "hugely welcome" if the Assad regime were to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile.
Whether intentional or not, Kerry's comments opened up a chance to defuse the crisis at a moment when Barack Obama is already struggling to persuade Congress of the need for US intervention. Kerry later spoke to Lavrov by phone and Washington scrambled to place its own spin on the unexpected breakthrough.
A key legislative ally, Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that she would welcome a move by Syria to put chemical weapons beyond use. "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," Feinstein said.
The White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that the offer by Russia and Syria had only come about because of "sustained pressure" from the US.
"It is our position and has been for some time that the Syrian regime should not use and also not possess stockpiles of chemical weapons and we would welcome any proposals that would result in the international control and destruction of that chemical weapon stockpile," he said. He added: "There is no question that we have seen some indications of an acceptance of this proposal [from the Syrians] but this is a very early stage and we approach this with scepticism."
Moallem, visiting Moscow, suggested the deal could be acceptable in Damascus. "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."
The suggestion of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control was also welcomed by the UN. Its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon said he would propose the security council unite and vote on an immediate chemical weapons transfer, placing weapons and chemical precursors in a safe place within Syria for international destruction.
In an interview with the US broadcaster Charlie Rose, Assad insisted there was "not a shred of evidence" that his own government was responsible for the recent chemical attacks inside Syria alleged by the White House, but suggested there could be chilling repercussions elsewhere in the region if the US intervened.
"If you strike somewhere, you have to expect repercussions somewhere else," he said. "It may take different forms, direct and indirect. Direct when governments want to retaliate, and indirect when you are going to have instability and the spread of terrorism over the region that will influence the west directly."
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Hopes of Syria breakthrough after Kerry slip: Off-the-cuff remarks by US secretary of state lead to fresh diplomatic initiative: Hopes of Syria breakthrough after Kerry slip
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