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Syria Suggests It's Willing to Destroy Chemical Arsenal

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Syria on Monday "welcomed" an offer by Russia to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control so that they could eventually be destroyed.

Syria's statement came very quickly after the proposal was made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in what he said was an attempt to avoid a U.S.-led strike on Syria.

"We call on the Syrian leadership not only agree on a statement of storage of chemical weapons under international control, but also its subsequent destruction, as well as about the full accession to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Lavrov said in a statement to reporters.

"We will immediately join the work with Damascus if establishing international control over chemical weapons in that country helps prevent attacks," the statement continued.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who met with Lavrov in Moscow earlier in the day, responded almost immediately.

"The Syrian Arab Republic welcomed the Russian initiative, based on the concerns of the Russian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country," Muallem told reporters, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

Muallem said Syria agreed to the move because of its "trust in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is trying to prevent the American aggression against our people."

Lavrov's comments came after Secretary of State John Kerry suggested earlier in the day that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons by the end of the week an attack could be avoided.

"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," Kerry told reporters during a press conference in London with his British counterpart.

The State Department later walked Kerry's statement back, calling it an off-hand "rhetorical argument."

"His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons. Otherwise, he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment," Kerry's spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

In an interview with PBS' and CBS News' Charlie Rose that aired Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied his forces used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack on a Damascus suburb that the United States says killed over 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. Assad said the United States has been unable to provide "a single shred of evidence" that his forces were responsible for the attack.

The German magazine Bild seemed to give some credence to Assad's claims this weekend, reporting that Syrian government forces might have carried out the chemical weapons attack without Assad's permission.

In response, Kerry argued that Syrian chemical weapons are tightly controlled and that there is "no question about responsibility."

Assad also warned of an unspecified retaliation if the United States and its allies go ahead with the attack.

During their press conference earlier in the day, around the same time that Kerry spoke in London, Lavrov and Muallem presented a united front against American-led calls for intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Lavrov said Moscow was focused on preventing a Western strike, which he warns will only destabilize the region and make a negotiated solution more difficult. He also denied he was working behind the scenes to hammer out a deal.

"There cannot be any deals made with regard to Russian policy that were concluded behind the Syrian people's back. That will not happen," he said.

Russia has remained Syria's strongest ally throughout the conflict. It continues to provide the Assad government with arms and economic support. It has also blocked efforts to pressure Assad in the United Nations Security Council.

Kerry, as he has done for the past week, tried to walk a fine line between sounding a battle cry in Syria and claiming the United States was "not going to war," a reflection of how difficult the Obama administration is finding it to sell an attack on Syria.

When arguing for the need to strike, Kerry compared the chemical weapons attacks to the Holocaust, which killed more than 6 million, and the Rwandan genocide, during which almost 1 million people died in the 1990s.

"If one party believes he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with chemical weapons, he will never get to the negotiation table," Kerry argued. "A resolution will never get done on the battlefield. It will be done at the negotiating table. But we have to get to that table."

But at the same time, he also tried to downplay the scope of the U.S. plans, saying an attack was not an act of war.

"We're not talking about war. We are not going to war," Kerry said. "We are going to be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable, in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's Civil War."

A small group of protesters outside the British foreign office disagreed, holding up signs that said, "Hands Off Syria."

"One, two, three four," they chanted, "we don't want another war."

After the news conference, Kerry left for Washington to lobby Congress to authorize the military strike in Syria.

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