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Russia Backs Kerry’s Call for Syria to Hand Over Chemical Weapon Stockpile

September 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned that the U.S. could expect repercussions for any military action, State Secretary John Kerry countered with a call for Assad to "turn over every single bit" of his chemical weapon stockpile. Judy Woodruff reports on how the United Nations and Russia are responding to Kerry's call.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, our lead story is Syria, where developments have been moving fast.

From Damascus, a warning from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria: It’s difficult for anyone to tell you what is going to happen. It’s an area where everything is on the brink of explosion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Assad told interviewer Charlie Rose of PBS and CBS, the claims his regime used poison gas are lies, and he issued a threat about fallout from my U.S. military strikes.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: It’s not only about Syria. It’s interlinked region, it’s intermingled, interlocked, whatever you want to — to call. If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in different forms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the warning during a stop in London, and he insisted any U.S. action would be very small scale.

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SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We’re not going to war. We will not have people at risk in that way. That is exactly what we’re talking about doing, unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry went on to say there is a way that Assad could prevent an attack.

JOHN KERRY: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In short order, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon joined in calling for Syria to hand over its chemical arsenal.

Russia, Syria’s ally, endorsed the idea as well.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (interpreter): We also call on the Syrian leadership not only to put chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, but also to destroy them afterwards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And even Syria’s foreign minister visiting Moscow quickly agreed.

WALID MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): I declare 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, initially, U.S. officials, past and present, voiced interest and skepticism.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a White House event. She endorsed military action against Syria and said:

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, former U.S. Secretary of State: If the regime immediately surrenders its stockpile to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step.

But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction, and Russia has to support the international community’s efforts sincerely, or be held to account.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, hours later, a surprising clarification. A senior official traveling with Kerry said the secretary’s remarks had been rhetorical and not intended as a serious proposal.

Meanwhile, the administration pressed its lobbying effort to win congressional support. The pitch included a closed-door briefing this evening for all members of Congress, just back from a month-long recess. The first major test will come Wednesday, when the Senate takes a procedural vote on a resolution to authorize force against Syria.

The diplomatic back and forth over transferring Syrian chemical weapons to outside control created confusion for much of the day. It also became a prime topic in a series of interviews at the White House and on this program.