07-14-2020  3:29 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
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Jamie Crawford and Catherine E. Shoichet CNN

(CNN) -- A new possibility for a diplomatic solution in Syria surfaced unexpectedly Monday as the war-torn country said it supported a proposal to hand over control of its chemical weapons.



But a key question loomed: Is that a viable option or simply a stall tactic as President Bashar al-Assad's government tries to stave off U.S. military action?

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Moscow that his nation "welcomes" a proposal by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks on Monday: put Syria's chemical weapons under international control to avert a U.S. military response over an alleged poison gas attack last month.

"I declare that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia's initiative, on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country," Moallem said. "We are also confident in the wisdom of the Russian government, which is trying to prevent an American aggression against our people."

The comments came after Secretary of State John Kerry discussed a similar scenario, though the State Department stressed later Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could not be trusted to relinquish his country's chemical stockpiles.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the "credible threat" of a U.S. military attack on Syria led to the Russian proposal, but he said any such plan would require close evaluation and that Washington remained "highly skeptical" of the Syrian regime.

Taking a 'hard look'

Still, the United States said it would take a "hard look" at the plan although State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said "we can't have this be another stalling tactic."

"Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chem weapons under international control. He hasn't declared them. We've repeatedly called on him to do so. And he's ignored prohibitions against them," she said.

"So I think it's important to keep in mind the context under which this Russian statement and this Syrian statement is happening, that this is only happening in the context of a threat of U.S. military action," Harf added.

Earlier Monday, Kerry said that al-Assad "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."

Speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry described that as an impossible scenario.

"He isn't about to do it and it can't be done obviously," Kerry said.

The State Department later sought to clarify Kerry's comment as a "rhetorical argument" and one U.S. official called it a "major goof," adding that America's top diplomat "clearly went off script."

"There is no one in the administration who is taking this Syria proposal seriously," the official said.

After he flew back from London, Kerry spoke with Lavrov, a senior administration official said. But it wasn't clear whether the two officials had spoken before or after the Russian foreign minister's meeting with his Syrian counterpart.

Several State Department representatives sought to clarify Kerry's remarks later in the day.

"His point was that this brutal dictator (al-Assad) 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," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "That's why the world faces this moment."

Harf said taking a look at the Russian proposal doesn't mean the White House is backing down from its push to get authorization from Congress to strike Syria.

"In fact, the opopsite. .... We think this is why it's even more important that Congress votes to authorize the president to use military action against Syrian regime targets, because we can be clear that if we don't give authorization to do so and we don't respond, then Assad will see that as a green light to continue using these chemical weapons."

Could 'goof' be solution?

But could Kerry's possible gaffe be the key to a diplomatic solution?

Commentator Andrew Sullivan says he hopes so.

"We have the possibility of two things: that Russia might actually act decisively to rein Assad in, and also support the only viable policy to accomplish what Obama wants -- protecting the world from these vile weapons," Sullivan wrote Monday. "I have no idea whether this is a serious move by Lavrov -- but it sure seems so, and it presents a fascinating non-binary option. It would manage to bring Russia in to solving this problem, without its having to acquiesce to what Putin regards as American grand-standing. And it would surely have some traction at the UN. Sometimes, it seems, Kerry's incompetence strikes gold. Here's hoping."

The Obama administration says the al-Assad government was responsible for an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that it said killed more than 1,400 people.

Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike in response but is so far meeting resistance from lawmakers and the public concerned about the United States again intervening militarily in a foreign crisis.

Syria has been engulfed in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people over the past two years, according to U.N. estimates.

Kerry is due to participate in a classified briefing about Syria to members of the House of Representatives after his return from London later Monday.

CNN's Jill Dougherty, Jim Sciutto, Joe Sterling and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

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