The White House on Monday said it would take a “hard look” at Russia's proposal to avert U.S. military strikes by having Syria turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors.
“We want to take a hard look at the proposal,” deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told reporters at a White House briefing. “We'll obviously discuss the idea with the Russians, and of course, we would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons.”
But Blinken, as well as White House spokesman Jay Carney, expressed skepticism that Russia would be able to effectively gather and monitor Syria’s chemical stockpile.
“The international community has tried for 20 years to get Syria to sign onto a ban on chemical weapons that 189 other countries have signed,” Blinken said. “Now, it is one of only five countries that haven't done it. And just last week [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad wouldn't even say whether he has chemical weapons despite overwhelming evidence that he's actually used them.”
Blinken also said the U.S. has spent months trying to work with the Russians to condemn Assad at the United Nations Security Council, and that Moscow has blocked all efforts – even a press release denouncing the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
Assad's government Monday said it welcomed the Russian proposal – the first indication that a diplomatic solution could resolve the international standoff after the U.S. charged Syria with using chemical weapons in an attack in an eastern suburb of Damascus that killed 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov early Monday said his country would ask Syria to relinquish control of its chemical weapons to international monitors to try to avert a U.S. strike.
Lavrov, who was meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Moscow, also urged Syria to sign the Convention on Chemical Weapons, which prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical arms.
In the aftermath of the attack, President Obama has vowed to hold Assad accountable, arguing that he crossed a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.
Obama has asked Congress to authorize the use of force against the Syrian government, but has faced difficulty building support for military action at both home and abroad.
Carney said that the Russian proposal would not sideline the administration’s efforts to sway lawmakers and win congressional authorization to strike Syria.
He encouraged lawmakers to move forward with an expected Senate vote this week and not wait to see if the Russian proposal gained traction.
"The only reason we are seeing this offer is because of the threat of U.S. military action," said Carney.
Even in the face of the Russia offer for a negotiated solution, Obama is continuing his full-court press for Congress to authorize military action against Syria.
The president is making his cast to multiple media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS, with the interviews set to air after 6 p.m.
He will also visit with Senate Democrats on Tuesday ahead of a primetime address to the nation later that night.
The White House on Monday announced that 13 more countries have signed a statement holding the Syrian government responsible for last month's chemical attack.
U.S. allies in Europe though have been slow to back a U.S. military strike, with only France signing on to support one.
Congressional approval also is far from assured with both libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats skeptical of intervention.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday, in her first public remarks on Syria, also called the Russian proposal an “important step.” But she cautioned that it “cannot be another excuse for delay or inaction.”
Human Rights First welcomed the Russian proposal, calling on the U.S. to immediately prepare a resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council, where Russia has repeatedly blocked action against Syria.
“This could be a diplomatic breakthrough in the Syria crisis,” said Human Rights First's Neil Hicks. “The administration should put Minister Lavrov's pledge to the test.”
Any U.N. action should require the Assad regime to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile to international control within seven days and submit to rigorous international monitoring to ensure compliance, Hicks added.
He also said the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court so that “war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the August 21 attacks, can be investigated and those responsible held accountable.”