POLITICS
09/09/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

U.S. Will 'Take A Hard Look' At Proposal To Secure Syria's Chemical Weapons

WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials on Monday said the U.S. would "take a hard look" at an emerging proposal to place the Assad regime's stockpile of chemical weapons under international control.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf sought to downplay the proposal first introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry during a speech in London on Monday, saying the secretary's words were "rhetorical and hypothetical." Nonetheless, she said, "We'll have to take a hard look at the Russian statement [in response to Kerry], so we understand what the Russians are proposing."

A few hours after Kerry spoke, the Russian foreign minister said his country would urge Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control, and the Syrian foreign minister seconded the idea.

The White House also signaled an openness to the proposal, and President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, used the same phrase that Harf did to discuss the plan, saying he wanted to take "a hard look" at it and looked forward to a chance to "discuss the idea with the Russians." White House press secretary Jay Carney called it "a potential avenue."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the proposal during an unrelated event at the White House, saying, "If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step." Clinton prefaced her remarks by saying she had spoken to Obama about the idea moments before.

Asked if there was anything Syrian President Bashar Assad could do to defer a proposed U.S. military strike against the Syrian regime, Kerry had said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it without delay, and allow the full and total accounting [of it] -- but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done."

Within hours, senior figures in Russia, Syria, the United Nations and the United Kingdom had all expressed support for the idea.

Still, officials at both the State Department and the White House warned that the proposal, if it really is one, is still in its infancy, and that neither Assad nor Russia has much credibility when it comes to discussions of chemical weapons use in Syria. Both Russia and Assad have repeatedly contended that Syrian rebel forces, and not the Assad regime, were responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that is believed to have killed at least 1,400 Syrians outside Damascus.

This lack of credibility, Blinken said, is the reason that "it's even more important that we don't take the pressure off [Congress] and that Congress give the president the authority he's requested" to launch airstrikes against the Syrian regime.

The administration said it intends to keep up a full court press on Capitol Hill this week, lobbying Congress to authorize the president to launch limited airstrikes against Syria. Administration officials have repeatedly said that such strikes would both "deter" Assad's future use of chemical weapons and "degrade" his ability to use his current stockpile, believed to be one of the largest in the world.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

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