A new possibility for a diplomatic solution in the standoff between Syria and the United States surfaced unexpectedly Monday as the war-torn country said it supported a proposal to hand over control of its chemical weapons.
But a key question loomed: Is that a viable option or simply a stall tactic as President Bashar al-Assad's government tries to stave off U.S. military action?
"It's certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons," President Barack Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Monday.
Asked whether the proposed idea was enough to avert a military strike on Syria, Obama said, "It's possible if it's real."
The U.S. president spoke hours after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Moscow that his nation "welcomes" a proposal that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made during talks on Monday. The idea: put Syria's chemical weapons under international control to avert a U.S. military response over an alleged poison gas attack last month.
"I declare that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia's initiative, on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country," Moallem said. "We are also confident in the wisdom of the Russian government, which is trying to prevent an American aggression against our people."
Secretary of State John Kerry discussed a similar scenario earlier Monday, though the State Department later said that al-Assad could not be trusted to relinquish his country's chemical stockpiles.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington remained "highly skeptical" of the Syrian regime.
"The only reason why we are seeing this proposal is because of the threat of U.S. military action," he said.
Taking a 'hard look'
Obama said the United States will work with Russia and the international community "to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."
The United States will take a "hard look" at the plan, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. But "we can't have this be another stalling tactic," she said, adding that the Syrian president's track record doesn't bode well.
"Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chemical weapons under international control," she said. "He hasn't declared them. We've repeatedly called on him to do so. And he's ignored prohibitions against them."
The new possibility of a diplomatic deal appeared to have started with comments from Kerry earlier Monday.
Asked whether there was anything al-Assad's government could do or offer that would stop an attack, Kerry said that al-Assad "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
Speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the U.S. secretary of state described that as an impossible scenario.
"He isn't about to do it," Kerry said. "And it can't be done, obviously."
U.S. official: Kerry "clearly went off script"
But as Russia and Syria later suggested that it could be done, one U.S. official called Kerry's remarks a "major goof," adding that America's top diplomat "clearly went off script."
"There is no one in the administration who is taking this Syria proposal seriously," the official said.
Several State Department representatives tried to clarify Kerry's remarks later in the day, calling them a "rhetorical argument."
"His point was that this brutal dictator (al-Assad) 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," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "That's why the world faces this moment."
Kerry's comments caught Russia's attention
It wasn't long before the remarks came up in a conversation between Lavrov and Kerry, who talked on the phone as the U.S. secretary of state flew back from London.
"I saw your comments this morning," Lavrov said to Kerry, according to a senior State Department official.