WASHINGTON — With Congress on the verge of considering whether to authorize President Obama to launch a retaliatory attack on Syria, the United States and Russia on Monday embraced a proposal that would allow Syria to avoid a U.S. missile strike by relinquishing control of its chemical weapons.
Obama called the proposal a “significant breakthrough” in an interview with “NBC Nightly News,” and he said on PBS’ “NewsHour” that he had discussed the plan with President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit last week in Russia.
But after two weeks of pressing for the need for a U.S. strike, Obama also said he remains skeptical that Syrian President Bashar Assad would agree to the idea. If he does, Obama told ABC News, he would “absolutely” hold off on a military strike.
“This may be a first step in what potentially could be an end to terrible bloodshed and millions of refugees throughout the region that is of deep concern to us and our allies,” Obama said on “CBS Evening News.”
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The diplomatic advance came as evidence mounted that Obama’s request for congressional approval for a strike remained widely unpopular, both in Congress and with the American people, despite a public push that has included impassioned presentations in recent days by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.
Informal counts found House members who said they planned to vote “no” far outnumbering those willing to say they would vote “yes,” and a new McClatchy/Marist poll of U.S. public opinion showed nearly 3-to-1 opposition among registered voters to military action.
The Senate postponed its vote on a resolution that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Democratic aides said the delay was intended to give the Russian proposal time to come together.
“I don’t think we need to see how fast we can do this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday night. “We have to see how well we can do this.’
The sudden possibility of a diplomatic solution came as Assad launched a public-relations campaign of his own, granting an interview to American television, and new information emerged that raised questions about the U.S. version of a chemical-weapons attack Aug. 21 in suburbs east of Damascus.
Speaking to interviewer Charlie Rose, Assad denied using chemical weapons and warned that if the U.S. struck Syria, “you should expect everything,” apparently referring not only to potential retaliation from Syrian forces but also to fallout from his allies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Obama said repeatedly that Assad does not have a “credible means to threaten the United States,” but he acknowledged that his allies, including Iran and Hezbollah, could engage in terrorist strikes against the U.S.
In Germany, the newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported over the weekend that the head of Germany’s foreign-intelligence agency told legislators that an intelligence-gathering ship, the Oker, had intercepted communications in which Assad repeatedly rejected field requests to use chemical weapons.
The newspaper, Germany’s largest Sunday publication, said legislators were told that German intelligence officials had concluded Assad was not behind the Aug. 21 attack.
A Syrian opposition group, the Damascus Center for Human Rights, also issued a report that provided yet another count of the dead in the Ghouta area east of Damascus, saying that while it believed more than 1,600 people had died, it could confirm the deaths of only 678 people.
That was far fewer than the U.S. claim that 1,429 people, including 426 children, had died.
The Damascus Center said 106 children and 157 women were among the deaths it had confirmed.
Obama, who is to speak to the nation in a televised address Tuesday, said on “NewsHour” that he and Putin had been talking about the proposal for Assad to surrender control of his chemical weapons “for quite some time.”
“I did discuss this with President Putin,” Obama said on Fox News. “This is something that is not new. I’ve been discussing this with President Putin for some time now.”
The development, however, seemed to catch much of Washington unawares after Russia seized on what appeared to be an off-the-cuff suggestion from Kerry that a surrender to international control of Syrian chemical weapons would be enough to halt a U.S. strike.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov quickly raised the idea with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who was in Moscow. Muallem said he welcomed the idea and would seek Assad’s approval.
He said he expected a quick, positive response, though none had been announced by Monday night.
There were no further details on how such an undertaking could happen, especially the logistics of getting international inspectors to sites or transporting highly sensitive materials in the midst of a civil war that’s raged for more than two years.
The twist of events began at a news conference in London, where Kerry said a strike could be avoided if the Assad regime turned over “every single bit” of its chemical arsenal to international authorities by the end of the week.
By the time the State Department clarified that Kerry’s remarks were intended only as rhetoric about a highly improbable scenario, Moscow already had pounced.
Moscow’s maneuvering to turn Kerry’s ad-libs into a potential diplomatic breakthrough only added another obstacle to Obama’s task of selling Congress and the public on an unpopular, ill-defined strike.
As of Monday, the Obama administration had provided classified briefings to 185 lawmakers.
Others have attended unclassified briefings or one-on-one meetings. The president will meet with Senate Republicans on Tuesday at the Capitol before his prime-time address.
Obama said he knows he faces an uphill battle in persuading Americans to support the strikes.
He said on PBS that he does not think he will convince the overwhelming majority of Americans that he should take action.
Even members of his own family are “suspicious” of military intervention, he said.
But, Obama said, he believes he can make a “very strong case” to the nation.
In his interviews Monday, Obama made it clear he recognizes congressional authorization is by no means assured.
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” he said on NBC.
Obama declined to say whether he would use force in Syria without congressional approval.
“I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t decided,” he told NBC.
Lawmakers, some of whom are opposed to the strikes, hailed the Russian proposal, which could be just the lifeline they needed from the dilemma of either supporting the administration’s strike plans or siding with constituents who’ve repeatedly rejected U.S. intervention in Syria.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he saluted any diplomatic “effort to resolve this in a verifiable way and do it with dispatch.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said she would welcome Syria’s transfer of its chemical weapons to international monitors for destruction, to prevent a military strike.