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Obama guarded, but open to Russian plan to avoid war over Syria

Sarah Harran, 6, from North Carolina and whose family is from Syria, runs under a Syrian flag during an anti-Syria protest outside the Capitol Building in Washington, Sept. 9, 2013. Secretary of State John Kerry's suggestion that Syria could cede its chemical arms to avoid a strike quickly gained traction with the international community Monday. (Gabriella Demczuk/ The New York Times )


President Barack Obama says he is open to exploring a Russian proposal to avert military strikes by having Syria turn over its chemical weapons – but he warned that the Assad regime cannot be trusted and said the United States must maintain pressure through the threat of U.S.-led military action.

The proposal, to have the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad park its chemical weapons at internationally controlled sites, to eventually be dismantled, was held out by the Russians on Monday as a hope for avoiding war.

"It is a potentially positive development," Mr. Obama said of the Russian plan, as he gave interviews to six TV networks as part of a fierce push to win backing from Congress on strikes against Syria.

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Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem immediately welcomed the Russian initiative, but didn't commit to any specific action. The idea, however, quickly gained the spotlight around the world, in the swiftly changing debate about how to respond to the Assad regime's alleged chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus in August.

The Russian proposal brought a cautious welcome from Mr. Obama's allies, at home and abroad.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the idea was worth exploring and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it "deserves close examination." Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said any move by Syria to surrender its chemical weapons would be an "important step." But all stressed Syria could not use the proposal to stall.

The Obama administration expressed concerns that it is a tactic aimed at diverting the attention of the American public and delaying strikes.

Winning support for U.S. military action is clearly an uphill climb. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is believed to be leaning to rejecting authorization for military action. An Ipsos opinion poll conducted for the Reuters news agency, found 63 per cent of Americans are against military intervention.

Mr. Obama, unlike any U.S. president before him, is now fighting for public and Congressional support for a military action with all the communications tools he can muster. They include enlisting Ms. Clinton to speak; conducting a series of TV interviews himself Monday; heading to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet lawmakers; and delivering a prime-time speech to the American people.

The President spoke to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by phone on Monday. The White House said Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper agreed there must be a strong international response to chemical weapons use to ensure that similar atrocities won't occur in the future.

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Speaking on CNN on Monday about the Russian proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons, Mr. Obama promised that his administration "will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."

"This could potentially be a significant breakthrough," he told NBC News. "But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate over the last couple of years."

Surprisingly, the Syrian President, too, is taking his case to the American people. In an interview with U.S. broadcaster Charlie Rose, recorded over the weekend and broadcast Monday, Mr. al-Assad warned of unpredictable repercussions for strikes. "It's going to get worse with every strike or war. Worse in terms of repercussions. If you strike somewhere, you have to expect repercussions elsewhere," he said.

He also said that attacking his regime would be a boon to terrorists and al-Qaeda extremists: "This is the war that is going to support al-Qaeda and the same people that kill Americans in the 11 of September," Mr. al-Assad said.

Given domestic opposition that could damage Mr. Obama's presidency, it might seem that the Russian proposal offers him a welcome off-ramp. But it appears to have taken his administration off guard. U.S. deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the United States would take "a hard look" at the idea but that Congress should still approve a military action.

"It's important to note that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the President is exerting," he said. "So it's even more important that we don't take the pressure off and that Congress give the President the authority he's requested."

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In Canada, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Rick Roth, said that if the Assad regime accepts the proposal it would mean agreeing to secure chemical weapons it long denied possessing. So "trusting [the regime] to comply with any commitment after years of deceit would be a challenge," Mr. Roth said.

Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College and expert on chemical-weapons arms control, said that it's technically feasible to park Syria's chemical weapons – if the U.S. and Syria have the political will to do it. The U.S. has extensive intelligence on Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has inspectors who can do the job, though there would be risks to their safety, Prof. Dorn said.

For the U.S., accepting the proposal would mean that it would not be able to damage the Assad regime's military capacity, and it will fear a delaying tactic. "The big concern is that it would be long, drawn-out negotiations," he said. "But technically, it's feasible."

With reports from Globe wire services

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