NC to Congress: Stay out of Syria
Posted September 9, 2013
Updated September 10, 2013
WASHINGTON — Confronted by the threat of U.S. air strikes, Syria swiftly welcomed the idea of turning over all of its chemical weapons for destruction on Monday, capping a remarkable chain of events that started with a suggestion from Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by a proposal from Russia and immediate endorsement by the U.N. secretary-general.
The Obama administration continued to express deep skepticism about Syrian President Bashar Assad's intentions, and the president pressed his efforts to gain congressional backing for U.S. military action. But he faces a decidedly uphill fight — and serious doubts by the American public.
Members of Congress, who will be asked to authorize Obama's use of force, have been hearing from their constituents, who are largely opposed to taking action.
N.C. Rep. George Holding (R-13th) called the mood skeptical. Where NC Congress members stand on Syria strike
"This president has had a failed foreign policy for over four years. Our friends over there don't trust us and our enemies don't fear us," Holding said.
"After the briefing, which was three hours, I remain skeptical and have been talking with members during the intervening week since that briefing. I think skepticism is on the rise here in the House."
Rep. Howard Coble (R-6th) said, the feedback he had from fellow Tar Heels was "unbelievably overwhelming in opposition."
Monday's developments could provide Obama with a way out of a messy political and foreign policy bind.
Kerry told reporters in London early Monday that Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the use of chemical weapons by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push its ally Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly to avert U.S. strikes. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately embraced the proposal. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged acceptance. NC reps hear resistance to Syria intervention
That seemed to raise prospects for avoiding an expansion of the Syrian civil war, and spokesmen said the administration would take a "hard look" at the proposal. But the matter was far from settled. The White House continued to build its case for action, with Obama taping six television network interviews for late Monday and administration officials briefing more members of Congress as they returned from summer recess. Obama will address the nation Tuesday night.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. would consider the proposal with "serious skepticism" because it might be merely a stalling tactic. She said Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.
In fact, she said the developments made it even more important for Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria as a means for pushing Assad to actually get rid of chemical weapons stocks.
The U.S. accuses Assad's government of being behind an attack using sarin gas in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, killing 1,429 people. Some other estimates of the deaths are lower, but there is wide agreement that chemical weapons were used.
In an interview with Charlie Rose that was broadcast Monday on "CBS This Morning," Assad denied responsibility, accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a "single shred of evidence," and warned that air strikes against his nation could bring retaliation. Pressed on what that might include, Assad responded, "I'm not fortune teller."
Later Monday, Syria's foreign minister, meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, addressed the idea of getting rid of any chemical weapons.
"Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people," said al-Moallem.
Said Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov: "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus."
U.S. officials in Washington initially said they were surprised by Kerry's comments, which came at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and in response to a question about what, if anything, Assad could do to stop the U.S. from punishing it for the use of chemical weapons.
"Sure," Kerry replied. "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 a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
In a speech on Monday, Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice reiterated that the president had decided it is in U.S. interests to carry out limited strikes. And the State Department moved to play down Kerry's comment.
"Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an email sent to reporters. "His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons otherwise he would have done so long ago."
Al-Moallem's statement appeared to mark an acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Assad to avoid the U.S. military attack.
But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.
Al-Moallem and Lavrov had not reacted to Kerry's comments when they spoke to reporters immediately after their meeting. But Lavrov appeared before television cameras several hours later to say Moscow would urge Syria to quickly place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them.
"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.
"We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons," he said.
The apparently un-choreographed series of statements from top U.S., Russian and Syrian diplomats followed media reports saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria with Obama during the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last week, had sought to negotiate a deal that would have Assad hand over control of chemical weapons.
Putin himself said Friday at a news conference marking the summit's end that he and Obama discussed some new ideas regarding a peaceful settlement of the crisis and had instructed Kerry and Lavrov to work out details.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Connie Cass in Washington and Edith Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.