President Barack Obama said Russia’s bid to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons is a “potentially positive development,” while expressing skepticism about whether the embattled regime will follow through.
The president also said in an interview with NBC News that he’s isn’t confident that Congress will approve an authorization to use military force, and he hasn’t decided whether he would strike Syria even if lawmakers turn him down.
While vowing that the U.S. will pursue the initiative to see whether the Russian proposal is serious, Obama said it has to be taken “with a grain of salt.”
“We have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years,” Obama said in the interview, one of six he taped today as part of an administration-wide attempt to rally public and congressional support for a U.S. military attack against Syria.
He said Syria’s embrace of the Russian proposal stemmed from the “credible threat” of a U.S. strike.
Obama’s interviews were a prelude to his address to the nation tomorrow night in which he’s seeking to make the case that U.S. national security is at stake if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians last month goes unanswered. His top aides and advisers have been briefing lawmakers and the president made personal appeals at a dinner with Republican senators last night and telephone calls over the weekend.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on an off- hand remark Secretary of State John Kerry made when answering a question at a briefing in London with U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Kerry, asked what could stop a U.S. military strike, said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” he added.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Kerry wasn’t setting an ultimatum. She said the top U.S. diplomat was making a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.”
Lavrov said after meeting with his Syrian counterpart today in Moscow that Russia would “immediately start working with Damascus” if international control of chemical weapons in Syria would forestall a military strike.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem welcomed the opening and called it a constructive proposal to “prevent American aggression against our people.”
The move to set a deadline for Syria gained momentum at the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he was “considering urging the Security Council to demand immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely destroyed.”
He said he would make the request only after UN inspectors issue their report on chemical-weapons use in Syria.
Assad, meanwhile said the U.S. should “expect every action” in retaliation.
“There are going to be repercussions,” Assad said in an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS’s “This Morning” program, an excerpt of which was aired this morning.
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