Amid U.S. President Barack Obama's media blitz to convince Congress to authorize a military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia and Syria agreed on what appears to be a flanking maneuver intended to prevent an American attack.
Hours after its Russian ally put the proposal on the table on Monday, Syria was quick to welcome the idea, which calls on the regime to transfer its chemical weapons to international supervision, after which it would eventually be destroyed and Syria would sign the convention prohibiting the use of such weapons.
During a press conference in Moscow, after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said that "Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people."
Incidentally, the Syrian foreign minister dodged questions pertaining to a concrete time frame for such a plan, and the "deal" between Russian and Syria also does not include any form of punitive measures toward Assad for using chemical weapons against his people.
Muallem's comments were essentially the first time that an official Syrian representative admitted to Damascus having chemical weapons. Muallem and Lavrov called on the United States to focus on the peace conference in Geneva instead of on military action that would not lead to a solution. Officials at the White House initially said the administration will "take a hard look at" the proposal, but a State Department spokesperson later said the American government was showing "serious doubt" about the plan.
In Israel, the Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on the Russian offer and Syria's positive reaction to it. Army Radio reported on Tuesday that Israeli leaders were skeptical and suspicious about the Russian deal, saying caution should be advised lest the deal was a manipulation meant only to deter an American attack. "Israel is not in this game," a senior Israeli diplomatic official told Army Radio, adding that it would be wise for the Obama administration to examine the Russian proposal thoroughly. "It is not yet time to pop the champagne," the official said.
President Shimon Peres said the "Russian proposal entails negotiations, because the Syrians proved they are not credible and that their integrity should not be trusted."
"When you see dead children after being gassed one cannot stand idly by. President Obama is taking the right steps," Peres said.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman [Yisrael Beytenu] said Tuesday that the details of the Russian proposal were unclear. In an interview to Israel Radio, Lieberman said that Israel must remain uninvolved in the Syrian conflict and not take any position on the matter, despite attempts to drag it into the quagmire.
"Assad must understand that he and his associates will become a legitimate target, if he drags Israel into the conflict," Lieberman said. Regarding Iran, he said Israel should first rely on itself and be prepared to face any threat. Lieberman also expressed hope that the international community would act with increased determination to put an end to Tehran's nuclear program.
In a series of television interviews designed to persuade Congress and the American public of the need for intervention, Obama on Monday said that he prefers a diplomatic solution in Syria, but is still skeptical.
"This could potentially be a significant breakthrough," Obama 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."
Obama said he would put on hold any military action if Syria would relinquish control of its chemical weapons arsenal.
In an interview Monday afternoon with "CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley, Obama called Russia's proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons a "potentially positive development" that could resolve his concerns over Assad's use of the weapons stockpile.
"Let's see if they're serious," Obama said in the one-on-one interview from the White House. "But we have to make sure that we can verify it and enforce it, and if in fact we're able to achieve that kind of agreement that has Russia's agreement and the [United Nations] Security Council's agreement, then my central concern in this whole episode resolved."
[EMBED VIDEO: <embed src="http://cnettv.cnet.com/av/video/cbsnews/atlantis2/cbsnews_player_embed.swf" scale="noscale" salign="lt" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" background="#333333" width="425" height="279" allowFullScreen="true" allowScriptAccess="always" FlashVars="si=254&&contentValue=50154669&shareUrl=http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57602048/obama-russias-syria-offer-a-potentially-positive-development/" />]
Congress sought to buy more time to explore Russia's offer. Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid pushed back a Wednesday test vote on authorizing military strikes to possibly later in the week.
"I don't think we need to see how fast we can do this. We have to see how well we can do this," Reid told his colleagues.
The surprise diplomatic course opened up after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an unscripted comment earlier on Monday during a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Kerry, in response to a reporter's question, suggested that Assad could avoid a military strike by surrendering his chemical arsenal. The State Department then backtracked by issuing a statement that Kerry's comments were rhetorical.
Administration officials also said the proposal would not derail efforts to get congressional authorization for strikes, saying it was the threat of strikes that motivated Russia's offer.
Kerry said he understood the lack of trust in American intelligence reports after the war in Iraq, but that he would be confident to take evidence that the U.S. intelligence committee has gathered into any courtroom.
In another controversial statement, Kerry said that if Congress votes in favor of a strike, it would be "unbelievably small."
"We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war," Kerry said. "That is exactly what we are talking about doing -- unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
In Europe, the Russian proposal was not rejected outright. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was "an interesting proposal," while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it "deserves close examination," but the chemical weapons would have to be placed under international control in a short time and those responsible for "the chemical massacre" must be punished.
Meanwhile, as Obama presses his case for a strike, a new national survey conducted by CNN shows him swimming against a strong tide of public opinion opposing U.S. intervention.
According to the CNN/ORC International poll released on Monday, even though eight in 10 Americans believe that Assad's regime gassed its own people, a strong majority doesn't want Congress to pass a resolution authorizing a military strike against it.
More than seven in 10 say such a strike would not achieve significant goals for the United States and a similar amount say it's not in the national interest for the country to get involved in Syria's civil war.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed opposition to a U.S. military strike was increasing. The poll, taken Thursday through Monday, indicated 63 percent of Americans oppose intervention, up from 53% in a survey ending August 30.
In a media campaign of his own, Assad denied responsibility for the chemical attack. In an interview with "CBS This Morning" on Monday, Assad accused the Obama administration of spreading lies without providing a "single shred of evidence," and warned that air strikes against his nation could bring retaliation. Pressed on what that might include, Assad responded, "I'm not [a] fortune teller."
Susan Rice, making her first major speech since taking over as Obama's national security adviser, said the United States cannot allow countries such as North Korea and Iran to think Washington would not react to a chemical weapons attack.
"We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a nuclear North Korea, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our long-standing warnings," she said.