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Syria Considers Proposal to Turn Over Chemical Arsenal, Possibly Averting US Military Strike

Syrian President Assad

As the White House weighs Syria’s possible acceptance of a proposal to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal to the international community for eventual destruction, President Obama indicated he had initially discussed the plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting last year in Mexico and again at the G-20 summit in Russia last week.

 The president’s admission, during a slate of interviews with major television networks, is significant because much of the media had been reporting that the proposal, floated yesterday by Secretary of State John Kerry, was thrown out offhandedly and was not part of a White House grand plan. But Obama changed that narrative when he said the proposal to Syria was in the discussions he had already been having with Putin.

With Russia’s urging, Syria appears to be warming to the idea of turning over its arsenal and averting an American military strike. If that occurred, it would be a development of enormous significance to Obama, who was fighting a losing battle in trying to convince Congress and the American public that military action, in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks on Syrians that killed more than 1,400, was a good idea.

Obama said yesterday that a proposal allowing Syria to give up its chemical weapons was a “potentially positive development” and that a diplomatic path, rather than a military one, to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be “overwhelmingly my preference.”

According to the BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he presented the proposal during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, and he urged Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction.”

He said he also told Muallem that Syria should then fully join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Speaking through an interpreter, Muallem told reporters that Syria welcomed the initiative, and he praised Russia for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people.”

Though Syria’s possible willingness to turn over its arsenal—which is a tacit admission that it even has  chemical weapons, something it has never been willing to acknowledge—substantially changes the dynamics of the conversation in Washington, Obama continued to pursue the authorization for military strikes from Congress.

“We would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons,” Obama said.

But Obama said he is willing to work with Russia to see if Syria is serious about the proposal and to see if they can reach a deal that is “enforceable and serious.”

In an interview with NBC News, Obama said he is taking the vote in Congress and the opinion of the American people “very seriously.”

“I knew by bringing this to Congress there was a risk that the American people just could not arrive at a consensus, even around a limited strike,” he told NBC.

“It’s my belief that for me, the president, to act without consensus in a situation where there’s not a direct, imminent threat to the homeland or our interests around the world, that that’s not the kind of precedent I want to set,” Obama added.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the proposal for Syria to hand over control of its chemical arsenal: “I would welcome such a move.”

So although the president will continue to make his case for military strikes, clearly the negotiations have moved in a different direction with the surprise shift by Syria.

But while Obama and congressional leaders say an authorization vote would now be well into the future, if it happens at all, the White House is fearful that Syria’s outreach is just a stalling tactic by President Bashar Assad to avert a U.S. attack by making it even more difficult for Obama to get American support.

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