Barack Obama: I'll put Syria military strikes 'on hold' if Assad surrenders chemical weapons

Proposal wins support from UN Secretary General and adds new and unexpected dimension to the situation

Barack Obama has said he would put on hold any plans for a military strike on Syria if the country agrees to a proposal by Russia to hand over any remaining chemical weapons for destruction under international control.

In a surprise manoeuvre from Moscow, apparently meant to delay and possibly avert American military action in the Middle East, the Russian government last night announced it was pressing Syria to turn over its arsenal of chemical weapons to international supervision and agree to its immediate dismantlement.

The proposal, which won instant backing from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, added a new and unexpected dimension to the crisis. It came just as President Barack Obama was ratcheting up his efforts in Washington to lobby the US Congress to approve limited strikes against Syria for its alleged chemical weapons use.

The US president said the proposal could be "potentially a significant breakthrough", but he remained sceptical that Syria would carry it out.

Mr Obama told NBC News that he was taking a statement from Damascus welcoming the idea "with a grain of salt initially", but said he would "absolutely" halt a US military strike if Syria's stockpiles were successfully secured.

"My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem," Mr Obama told ABC News.

"If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference."

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had announced the proposal after talks in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. He said that he expected “a quick and, I hope, positive answer” from Damascus. “If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in [Syria] makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus,” he said.

Earlier in London, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, had said Syria could avoid strikes if it agreed to give up “every single bit” of its chemical arsenal by the end of this week. It wasn’t quite clear if Mr Kerry was giving Syria a way out of the crisis or if his remarks were more off-hand with no expectation of a positive response. Yet he may have inadvertently given Mr Lavrov the chance to make the same challenge to Syria in Russia’s name.

The State Department said the US would take a “hard look” at the Russian proposal. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US would consider it with “serious scepticism” because it might be a stalling tactic. She said Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.

David Cameron too expressed scepticism, warning that Russia’s plan could be a diversionary tactic aimed at heading off American-led military strikes. Responding to Russia’s move, Downing Street reiterated the Prime Minister’s strong support for military intervention, saying: “Robust action is still needed. We should judge the Assad regime by the actions it has already taken.”

In the Commons, Mr Cameron said: “If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision, that clearly would be a big step forward and should be encouraged. I think we should be careful though that this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something else rather than the problem on the table. But if it is a genuine offer, it should be genuinely looked at.” For his part, Mr al-Moallem said that the regime in Damascus welcomed the proposal to surrender and take apart its chemical weapons. “I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership’s concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people,” Mr al-Moallem said.

Mr al-Moallem offered no details, however, including how quickly the regime might be able to make the whole arsenal available or where the stockpile might be located. Yet, it appeared to be the first time that Syria has even acknowledged its possession of chemical weapons.

Asked to comment on the Russian plan, Labour leader Ed Miliband told ITV's Daybreak: "We were right to prevent the rush to war. We were right, the Labour Party was right and Parliament was right and people on the Conservative side and the Liberal Democrat side were right to do that.

"You get criticism when you take a stand like that.

"It was right to take that stand. I think the signs from the Russian-Syrian proposal are encouraging.

"We have got to be cautious about it, we have got to see whether they are serious. But if it is the case that the proposal is serious, it will be the British Parliament that stepped in and and said 'Now, hang on a minute - let's take this calmly and in a measured way'.

"That is why I think it was the right thing to do."

In New York, meanwhile, Secretary General Ban suggested that the UN Security Council should unite and itself demand the immediate transfer of the arsenal into safe hands. “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,” he said.

As it tried to bolster its position, the White House had said earlier last night that an additional 14 countries had agreed to sign a declaration supporting an international response to the alleged use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons against its own civilians. New countries joining the declaration include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it said.

Making his appearances on six US networks, Barack Obama stepped up his campaign to persuade the US Congress and the American public that launching strikes against Syria is necessary, in part to show other enemies of the US, including Iran and North Korea, that crossing the “red lines” of accepted international behaviour will have consequences. Mr Obama will then make a final, critical pitch in an Oval Office address today.

Top US national security officials meanwhile returned to Capitol Hill yesterday to resume classified and non-classified briefings with members of Congress who this week will begin a series of votes that the White House hopes will result in resolutions giving Mr Obama a 90-day window for narrow military action against Syria that will explicitly rule out putting American troops on the ground.

Mr Obama and his team still have a long hill to climb to persuade Congress of the wisdom of a military response.  A new Associated Press survey suggested that almost half of the 433 current members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives remain undecided about what to do. “It’s an uphill slog,” Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin