, WASHINGTON September 10- President Barack Obama said a Russian plan to head off threatened US strikes on Syria by securing a deal to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons could be a “significant breakthrough.”
Obama warned Monday he had not taken military strikes off the table but, in agreeing to consider the Russian initiative, he effectively pushed back the timetable for possible action.
The US leader had intended to spend the day selling his plan to launch punitive military strikes against Bashar al Assad’s regime to skeptical American voters and lawmakers.
Instead, he found himself responding to a surprise Russian diplomatic initiative which would see Assad’s stockpile of banned chemical arms taken under international control.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman also welcomed Russia’s plan.
Marzieh Afgham told a media conference in Tehran that the proposal should include the destruction of chemical weapons in the hands of rebel groups fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Islamic republic of Iran favourably welcomes the (Russian) initiative which aims at halting all military action” against Syria, Afgham said.
Obama, who faces a tough task winning Congressional approval for even a limited military action, admitted that US lawmakers were not close to voting on the issue.
“I don’t anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” he told ABC news.
And, in a series of television interviews, he insisted it had only come about because Assad and his allies in Moscow could see the United States was serious about using force.
“I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world, has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move,” he told NBC.
“And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years.”
In separate interviews with several US broadcasters, Obama said he had discussed the issue with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at last week’s G20 summit in Saint Petersburg.
Washington’s European allies gave a similarly cautious welcome to the plan, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued his own plea for a mission to secure and dispose of the weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had met his Syrian counterpart and urged Damascus to “place chemical weapons under international control and then to have them destroyed.”
Speaking in Moscow, Syria’s Foreign Minster Walid al Muallem welcomed the Russian move, though it was not immediately clear if a still defiant Assad would agree to the measure.
The rebels battling Assad, who hoped to see US missiles rain down on the regime, denounced the idea as a plot by Putin to protect Assad.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed concern that the plan might be “a distraction tactic” but broadly welcomed it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Kremlin’s proposal as “interesting” but added that she hoped it would be put into place quickly and not simply be used to “buy time.”
And France, the only Western ally to have offered to take part in a US led strike, said Assad must commit “without delay” to the elimination of his chemical arsenal.
United Nations leader Ban, meanwhile, called for the creation of UN supervised zones in Syria where the country’s chemical weapons can be destroyed.