US National Security Adviser Susan Rice speaks about the situation in Syria at the New America Foundation in Washington on Sept. 9. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials continued to make strong statements in an attempt to build support for its campaign to launch military strikes on Syria on Monday afternoon, with a top White House adviser and the US State Department pushing back hard against skeptics.
Even potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in on the issue for the first time, throwing her considerable influence behind the Obama administration’s efforts.
In a contentious press conference, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf pushed back against an hours-old Russian proposal to put the Syrian chemical stockpile under international control, saying that “we have very deep skepticism about it and we don’t want this to be another stalling tactic” by the Russians and Syrians.
“There just aren’t any details [on the Russian proposal] yet, which is why we maintain deep skepticism,” she added.
The Russian proposal was made public about an hour before National Security Adviser Susan Rice was set to give a speech on Syria at a Washington think tank. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — emerging from a meeting in Moscow with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem — said that the Russian government suggested to the Syrians that its chemical stockpiles be placed under international care.
“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this,” Lavrov said at a hastily called press conference on Monday evening in Moscow, “but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus.”
While al-Moallem didn’t commit to the plan, he said that his government “welcomes the Russian initiative” and is open to the idea. He gave credit to Russia for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people.”
Lavrov also said that the Russian government will “call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”
There is the possibility that Secretary of State John Kerry got the ball rolling on the Russian proposal earlier in the day when he said in London that Assad could avoid attack if his government would begin “turning 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 the full and total accounting.”
The State Department’s Harf pushed back at suggestions that Kerry was actually issuing a proposal, calling his comments a “rhetorical statement about a scenario that we think is highly unlikely … he didn’t put it out there as a proposal.”
The Russian government has “refused to accept reality” when it comes to the Syrian use of chemical weapons, Harf continued, but she promised that the US government will “take a hard look at what people have put on the table, to see if what they put on the table has any credibility whatsoever.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also weighed in on the issue for the first time on Monday, taking time out of an unrelated speech to embrace the Obama administration’s call for military action.
She said that the Assad regime’s chemical weapons usage “demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States,” and that the Russian proposal “cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction, and Russia has to support the international community’s actions sincerely or be held to account.”
Rice didn’t take any questions after her prepared remarks, but she made the same case for action that UN Ambassador Samantha Power did on Sept. 6, and that the president is expected to make over the course of seven televised interviews Monday evening, and his address to the nation on Tuesday night.
She made the argument that “Assad is lowering his threshold for use” of chemical weapons, and that the Syrian regime’s possession of these weapons “puts Americans at risk of chemical attacks, targeted at our soldiers and diplomats in the region and potentially our citizens at home.”
Rice also made the case for presidential power and American credibility. “Any president, Republican or Democrat, must have recourse to all elements of American power” she said, holding that “rejecting limited military actions … would raise questions around the world” over American resolve and leadership.
In response to the Russian proposal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she “would welcome such a move.”
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said on Monday that the UN Security Council must overcome its “embarrassing paralysis” on the Syria issue, adding that there’s a chance he will ask the council to push Syria to move its chemical arms stocks to internal locations where they can be stored and destroyed.