Senate Waits On Possible Diplomatic Solution In Syria

The U.S. and its allies await details of Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under UN supervision. Meanwhile, senior Obama administration officials are continuing to press for congressional approval of a potential military strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with Syria and movement today, lots of it, in the debate over its alleged use of chemical weapons. As President Obama prepares to address the nation to make his case for a military strike on Syria, the Senate has decided to hold off on a vote. The reason, fresh hope for a diplomatic solution.

Russia has proposed Syria put all of its chemical weapons stockpile under international control. And today, Syria said it is ready to sign a chemical weapons convention. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the Obama administration is now waiting to see a concrete plan.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry says there's one reason that Syria and, as he puts it, its benefactor Russia, put forward this plan.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: A lot of people say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Well, it's the credible threat of force that has been on the table for these last weeks that has, for the first time, brought this regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal.

KELEMEN: And it is that threat of force, he went on to tell the House Armed Services Committee, that has raised the prospect for international diplomacy. Kerry says the Obama administration will take a hard look at what the Russians are proposing but it has be real and verifiable, he says, not just a delaying tactic.

KERRY: We're waiting for that proposal but we're not waiting for long.

KELEMEN: The U.S. believes Syria has a large stockpile of chemical weapons, including about 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Most of that is in the form of unmixed binary components, probably stored mostly in tanks, but they also possess sarin-filled munitions and other things we can't go into here. We're going to have to be able to know that it can all be accounted for and actually moved under the circumstances that exist in Syria.

KELEMEN: And it will be up to the Syrian government, Kerry says, to ensure the safety of chemical weapons experts, since he says most, if not all, of the material is in government-controlled territory. Experts say it is technically difficult and time-consuming to eliminate nerve agents and to do this in the midst of a civil war adds yet more complications.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, says there's another issue to think about.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: This is a very expensive operation. Generally, when the international community does something, we're the ones that end up paying for it.

KELEMEN: That's an issue that will still has to be debated, diplomats say. France wants the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that warns of consequences should Syria not give up its chemical weapons. Russia's foreign minister calls that language unacceptable. His country had requested a Security Council meeting but put it off as it continues to consult with the U.S.

Sergey Lavrov is to meet Kerry on Thursday in Geneva. Russia has been urging the U.S. to take the threat of a military strike off the table. Here's Russian President Vladimir Putin.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: It's difficult to make any country, Syria or any other, disarm unilaterally, Putin says, if there's military action under consideration. But Secretary Kerry says he's told the Russians the U.S. won't buy into something that won't get the job done. He's urging Congress to keep the threat of a military strike on the table. He got into a heated debate with Republican Jeff Miller of Florida, after the Senate delayed a vote which Kerry says was meant to give the U.N. more time.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF MILLER: Because they don't have the votes, Mr. Secretary, that's why they've delayed. You know that.

KERRY: Actually, no, I don't.

MILLER: Well, I do.

KERRY: Well, I'm glad you know something. And, you know, this should not be a political discussion about whether there are votes or not.

MILLER: I'm not being political, Mr. Secretary. It's the truth. They don't have the votes.

KELEMEN: Kerry says playing politics now will undermine the Obama administration's efforts to keep the pressure on Syria and on Russia to follow through on this diplomatic opening. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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