WASHINGTON -- Russia and Syria embraced Secretary of State John Kerry's suggestion Monday that the Syrian government could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control, upending the Obama administration's efforts to sharpen its case for military action.
U.S. officials said Mr. Kerry's comment, made in response to a question at a news conference in London, was not intended to be a diplomatic opening. But Mr. Kerry's Russian and Syrian counterparts quickly followed up, and the idea drew immediate interest internationally and from top Democrats in Washington.
By the end of the day, President Barack Obama conceded that the idea of monitoring and ultimately destroying Syria's arsenal "could potentially be a significant breakthrough." The Senate postponed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to back a proposed punitive strike.
"I think you have to take it with a grain of salt, initially," Mr. Obama said in an interview with NBC that was among several he gave Monday in pursuit of public backing for a military strike in response to an alleged Aug. 21 gas attack on Syrian civilians. "We are going to run this to ground," he said. "We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are."
The president plans to address the nation at 9 tonight in a speech initially planned to be the capstone of a newly focused moral and political case to rally a skeptical public and reluctant lawmakers.
The timing of the new proposal was awkward and its apparent genesis perhaps more so. It began when Mr. Kerry was asked early Monday whether Syrian President Bashar Assad could avoid a U.S. attack.
"Sure. He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay," Mr. Kerry responded with a shrug. "But he isn't about to."
As Mr. Kerry flew back to Washington to help lobby lawmakers, he received a midair call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said he had heard the secretary's remarks and was about to make a public announcement.
The statement in Moscow came before Mr. Kerry landed.
"We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Mr. Lavrov said, adding, "We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moualem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer."
Mr. Moualem, who was in Moscow meeting with Mr. Lavrov, followed with a statement that his government "welcomes Russia's initiative, based on the Syrian government's care about the lives of our people and security of our country."
Although Mr. Assad denies having a stockpile of the widely banned weapons, the idea of international control also quickly gained traction among diplomats and at least some senior Democrats whose support Mr. Obama seeks for a show of force.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the first senior lawmaker to voice support for the Russian proposal. "I think if the U.N. would accept the responsibility of maintaining these facilities, seeing that they're secure, and that Syria would announce that it is giving up any chemical weapons programs or delivery system vehicles that may have been armed, then I think we've got something," she said.
The Russian announcement was met with approval by international backers and critics of a U.S. strike. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has said a U.S. attack on Syria would be illegal without U.N. approval, signaled support, as did British Prime Minister David Cameron.
French Foreign Minister Laurant Fabius, whose government had said it would join a U.S. attack and who two days ago stood at Mr. Kerry's side in Paris to pledge an all-out effort to build public support, said it was worth testing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been wary of a strike, welcomed the idea.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the proposal came only because Mr. Assad feels the threat of military force, and that Congress should continue considering Mr. Obama's request for legislative backing. But the two said the proposal should be given a chance -- and a test of its sincerity -- by being committed to writing in a U.N. Security Council resolution. "We should not trust, and we must verify," the pair said in a joint statement.
A senior State Department official said Mr. Kerry warned Mr. Lavrov that the United States was "not going to play games."
Current and former Obama administration officials scrambled Monday to say the proposal should not derail plans for a punitive strike. They suggested it was a delaying tactic after more than two years of diplomatic efforts with Syria and its ally Russia, albeit one spurred by the prospect that a U.S. military attack is imminent.
Mr. Obama said in a "PBS NewsHour" interview Monday that he had discussed the possibility of international monitoring with Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week's Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The senior State Department official said Mr. Lavrov had previously discussed the idea in conversations with Mr. Kerry, including a phone call as recently as Thursday, but never in the context of the proposed U.S. military action.
First Published September 10, 2013 4:00 AM