10 Sep 2013

Obama sees possible Syria breakthrough

11:10 pm on 10 September 2013

United States President Barack Obama says he will take seriously a Russian proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control but the plan should be treated sceptically.

Mr Obama has been appearing in six interviews with American television networks in advance of his speech to the nation on Wednesday in which he is expected to tell Congress and the American people why military action against Syria is necessary.

Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control and have them destroyed in an attempt to avert American-led military strikes.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put the proposal to his Syrian counterpart Walid al Muallem during talks in Moscow, the BBC reports.

Mr al-Moualem has expressed hope the proposal could avert military strikes against Syria but stopped short of saying explicitly that Syria's Government accepts the plan.

Mr Obama says he is sceptical of Russia's plan but is not dismissing it and has described it as a potential breakthrough.

"It's possible if it's real, and I think it is certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons," he told CNN.

"This is what we've been asked for, not just over the last week or the last month but for the last couple of years."

The plan should be taken with a grain of salt, he said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he supports the proposal but Syria would have to positively agree to it. He too says he is sceptical of Russia's plan but is not dismissing it.

Congress resuming

With Congress returning to Washington after a month-long summer break, Mr Obama is pushing ahead to persuade reluctant and divided members to back potential military action, saying the threat of force is needed to press Syria to make concessions.

A top Obama administration official says he believes the congressional votes favoring a military strike against Syria will be there at the end of the day.

However, a poll carried out by ABC and the BBC on Friday suggested more than 230 of the 433 members in the House of Representatives were either opposed or likely to oppose strikes.

A survey by CNN shows a majority of people do not think a strike is in the national interest.

As well, a planned Senate vote on possible military action against Syria has been indefinitely postponed.

Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that not responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would be riskier than taking action.

He was speaking in London following a meeting with his British counterpart William Hague.

Mr Kerry reiterated the US position that it has enough evidence against the Syrian Government.

He says as a former prosecutor in the US he has tried and had people sentenced to long prison terms with less evidence than he has against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The chief of staff for the United States Army says any country using chemical weapons against its own people must be held accountable.

General Raymond T. Odierno is in New Zealand for the three-day Pacific Armies Chiefs' Conference in Auckland.

General Odierno told Morning Report a sniper's bullet is specific while chemicals are indiscriminate and kill many people not necessarily involved in the conflict.

He says the Syrian regime breached international treaties and that cannot be ignored.