WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told members of Congress that the Obama administration is ready to consider a Russian proposal to let Syria turn over its chemical weapons to international control, but that the United States won’t wait for long.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on September 10, Kerry urged lawmakers to still vote in favor of authorizing U.S. military strikes on Syria because, without a credible threat of force, he said Syria won’t cooperate with such a plan.
"Make no mistake about why this idea has any potential legs at all and why it is that Russians have reached out to the Syrians and why the Syrians have initially suggested they might be interested," Kerry said. "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 [Syrian] regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal. And it is the threat of this force and our determination to hold Assad accountable that has motivated others to even talk about a real and credible international action that might have an impact."
Kerry said any proposal to let Syria surrender its chemical weapons must be "swift, real, and verifiable" and warned that the United States would not fall for delaying tactics.
He said the White House still needs Congress's assent to go ahead with military strikes if the plan falls through.
"We have to continue to show Syria, Russia, and the world that we are not going to fall for stalling tactics," Kerry said. "If the challenge we laid down is going to have the potential to become a real proposal, it is only because of the threat of force that we are discussing today and that threat is more compelling if [the U.S.] Congress stands with the commander in chief."
A preliminary vote in the Senate to authorize U.S. military force scheduled for September 11 was postponed to give the potential diplomatic solution more time.
Meanwhile, a group of eight bipartisan senators has drafted an alternative resolution that reflects the diplomatic progress. The new resolution calls for a United Nations team to remove Syria's chemical weapons by a fixed date, and authorizes U.S. military action if that doesn’t happen.
Testifying alongside Kerry was U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who acknowledged that the Russian plan could represent a breakthrough. But he urged lawmakers to proceed with caution.
"All of us are hopeful that this option [of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international supervision] might be a real solution to this crisis," he said. "Yet we must be very clear-eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patrons. And for this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of U.S. military action -- the credible, real threat of U.S. military action -- must continue."
President Barack Obama's tone has shifted in the last 24 hours from vowing a military response to what the White House says was Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's use of chemical weapons in an August 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 people to now calling strikes "a very narrow military option."
He will make his case to the nation in a televised address from the White House on the evening of September 10.
With reporting by AP, "The New York Times," and Reuters