WASHINGTON — In a rapid and remarkable chain of events, Syria welcomed the idea of turning over all of its chemical weapons for destruction on Monday, and President Barack Obama, though expressing deep skepticism, declared it a "potentially a significant breakthrough" that could head off the threats of U.S. air strikes that have set the world on edge.
The administration pressed ahead in its efforts to persuade Congress to authorize a military strike, and Obama said the day's developments were doubtless due in part to the "credible possibility" of that action. He stuck to his plan to address the nation Tuesday night, while the Senate Democratic leader postponed a vote on authorization.
The sudden developments broke into the open when Russia's foreign minister, seizing on what appeared at the time to be an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, appeared in Moscow alongside his Syrian counterpart and proposed the chemical weapons turnover and destruction. The Syrian quickly embraced the idea, and before long U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did, too.
Obama, who appeared Monday evening in interviews on six TV networks, said the idea actually had been broached in his 20-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama said he directed Kerry to have more conversations with the Russians and "run this to ground."
The president said he would "absolutely" halt a U.S. military strike if Syria's stockpiles were successfully secured, though he remained skeptical about Assad's willingness to carry out the steps needed.
"My objective here has always been to deal with a very specific problem," Obama said in an interview with ABC News. "If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference."