As the administration presses its case for a strike on Syria and the clock continues to tick toward a Senate vote, an alternative calling for the Bashar al-Assad regime to put its chemical weapons under international control appears to be gaining some traction both inside and outside of Congress.
Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the idea in remarks in London on Monday. Not long after, Russian officials embraced it and President Obama himself said he would be willing to put plans for a strike on hold if the Syrian dictator complied.
“It’s possible,” Obama said on CNN, “if it’s real.”
With many media tallies showing weak congressional support for a resolution authorizing the use of force, several lawmakers — including some veteran Democrats — expressed early support for the idea.
“I would welcome such a move,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
The development comes as the Senate is preparing for procedural votes on a resolution this week, though Republican aides said on Monday it is unlikely the House would vote this week. Aides said the House is likely to take up the Senate resolution, if it passes, rather than cast up its own, though they are expecting at least two days of debate.
Kerry, responding to a reporter’s question while speaking alongside the British foreign minister, seemed to present Russia, a key ally of the Syrian regime, with an opening. Asked whether there was anything Assad could do to prevent an attack, he answered in the affirmative.
“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
After his comment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated Russia would work with Damascus to place the weapons under international control.
Some lawmakers hailed Lavrov’s statement as an alternative to military strikes, which polls show are widely unpopular with the public.
“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.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also expressed hope that a diplomatic solution could be arranged and welcomed the development. But Durbin suggested there was cause for skepticism because of the difficulty of assuring that chemical weapons are securely in the hands of a third party.
“If there is a way to do this diplomatically, safely, and to do it in a fashion where we can be certain this type of atrocity will not occur again, we absolutely have a responsibility to pursue it,” Durbin said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said the proposal would be an option worth pursuing if it could prevent another war. But he said the administration would have to look at it carefully.
For his part, Assad denied that he used chemical weapons in an interview with Charlie Rose that aired this week. In his first comments with U.S. media since Obama has sought Congress’s approval for a strike, Assad reproached the administration and said the U.S. should expect repercussions if it strikes Syria.
Some legislators say they are not sure they can take Syria — or Russia — seriously enough to pursue a deal over chemical weapons.
“It’s not real at this point. It’s been offered; we haven’t heard Syria’s response. There’s so much more to learn about it,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. “If Syria were to give up all of their chemical weapons, that would be the best possible result.”
“Make no mistake about it, [Russia] wouldn’t be proposing this after years of blocking any action in the Security Council if not for the potential use of military strikes to deter the future use of chemical weapons. That’s what explains their change in behavior after three years,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a White House forum on a separate topic, also appeared to support the idea. “If the regime immediately surrenders its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” she said.
Despite the talk of alternatives, the administration pressed ahead with its overtures to lawmakers on Monday. The House Armed Services Committee met in a classified session with administration officials over Syria; lawmakers met in a closed-door session in the Capitol; and some senators met with administration officials at the White House on Monday.
Obama, who recorded a half-dozen television interviews on Monday, will head to the Capitol on Tuesday to meet with the Democratic caucus and Republican conference before giving a televised address to the nation on Syria.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., forestalled filing cloture on Monday night, saying he had the votes but that he wanted to give the president a chance to speak to “all 100 senators and all 300 million American people before we do this.”
Reid also delayed the vote so the administration and the Senate would have time to consider whether the Russian proposal was serious, according to a Senate Democratic aide. But Senate Democratic leaders nevertheless pressed ahead with their support for a military strike.
“Syria and Russia lack credibility on this issue, Syria having denied until recently that it had chemical weapons or that it deployed them,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said. “We have tried diplomacy.”
Reid, referring to the gas attacks of World War I and citing the Italian poet Dante, made the case for attacking Assad on moral grounds. Speaking on the Senate floor, Reid said he saw a video showing a chemical weapons attack. “I will never get that out of my mind,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who told a Kentucky audience last week that he would announce a position, failed to rebut Reid’s call for a resolution. Instead, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., rebutted the majority leader, but said he would wait until the president’s speech to announce how he will vote. McConnell will address Syria Tuesday morning, spokesman Don Stewart said.
The debate also continued off the Hill.
Kerry implored lawmakers to attend intelligence briefings and argued there was no doubt the Assad government used chemical weapons. He also stressed that a U.S. strike would be highly targeted, in comments that drew wide ridicule on the Internet.
“That is exactly what we’re talking about doing — unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” he said.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice delivered an address outlining the case against the Assad regime at the New America Foundation, arguing that the use of chemical weapons should be answered.
“Failing to respond brings us closer to the day when terrorists might gain and use chemical weapons against Americans abroad and at home,” she said.