Russia Calls On Syria To Give Up Chemical Weapons

Secretary of State John Kerry says there is one thing Bashar al-Assad's government can do to avoid a punitive U.S. air strike — turn over Syria's chemical weapons stockpile to international control. Russia's foreign minister picked up on the idea, perhaps calling Kerry's bluff, and made the proposal to Syria's foreign minister who happens to be visiting Moscow. Lavrov says he expects a positive response and soon.

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We begin this hour with an unexpected twist in the story of Syria and its alleged use of chemical weapons. Russia is now urging Syria to give up its stockpile to avoid a U.S. military strike. Though the offer appears to be in response to a comment this morning from the secretary of state, NPR's Michele Kelemen reports the U.S. is skeptical.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry may have inadvertently set off this latest diplomatic twist when he answered a simple question at a London news conference: Is there anything that Bashar al-Assad's government can do or offer that would stop a U.S. strike?

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Sure. 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.

KELEMEN: His aides say he was just speaking rhetorically. But Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was quick to follow up, suggesting the idea to his Syrian counterpart, who was visiting Moscow and who welcomed the Russian proposal.

SERGEY LAVROV: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: We don't know if Syria will agree to this or not, but if placing chemical weapons under international control will prevent a military strike, then we will start working immediately with Damascus, Lavrov says. He says he's expecting a positive answer and soon. So is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who says he had already been thinking about proposing the same idea to the Security Council when he presents the findings of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed.

KELEMEN: Ban wouldn't say when the U.N. inspectors will finish their report on the soil and blood samples they took from the scene of the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus last month. But he says if the team confirms the use of chemical agents, he expects the Security Council to do something about it.

KI-MOON: Two-and-a-half years of conflict in Syria have produced only embarrassing paralysis in the Security Council.

KELEMEN: Ban says the Security Council should deal with the issue of accountability at some point, but his inspectors don't have the mandate to place blame. The U.S. says it already knows that Bashar al-Assad's regime did it and says Assad needs to be held to account and soon. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who was until recently the ambassador to the U.N., says President Obama would prefer to have a united Security Council on this.

SUSAN RICE: But let's be realistic. It's just not going to happen now. Believe me, I know. I was there for all of those U.N. debates and negotiations on Syria. I lived it, and it was shameful.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Rice didn't take any questions after her speech to a Washington think tank, so she didn't get into the latest proposals about putting Syria's chemical weapons under U.N. control. Those questions were left to State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, who says the U.S. is skeptical.

MARIE HARF: All we've heard today are statements from the Russians and the Syrians who, for the last two years, have lied about chemical weapons, have protected the Assad regime when it killed its own people. So that's why today we have serious, deep skepticism about this latest statement.

KELEMEN: She argues that the Russians and the Syrians might be using this as a stalling tactic and says they only made these statements because of what she calls a credible U.S. military threat. That's the case the Obama administration is still trying to make to Congress. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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