White House: Russian prestige on the line in Syria

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 2:27 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House tried Wednesday to pin the success or failure of a diplomatic option to secure Syria's chemical weapons on Russia rather than the United States as Secretary of State John Kerry headed for Geneva to work on a Russian proposal for international inspectors to seize and destroy the deadly stockpile.

With the public focus on diplomacy rather than military might, Vice President Joe Biden and senior White House officials summoned House Democrats and Republicans for classified briefings as a follow-up to President Barack Obama's nationally televised address in which he kept the threat of U.S. airstrikes on the table and said it was too early to say whether the Russian offer would succeed.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to put a deadline on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff but said that bringing Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control "obviously will take some time."

"Russia is now putting its prestige on the line," he said. Asked whether U.S. prestige also was on the line, Carney added, "The United States leads in these situations. And it's not always popular and it's not always comfortable."

On Capitol Hill, action on any resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia's diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.

"The whole terrain has changed," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We want to make sure we do nothing that's going to derail what's going on."

That didn't stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama's initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who had attended a Sunday night dinner with Obama and Biden, assailed the president for "pinball diplomacy."

"Unfortunately, what we've seen from the commander in chief so far has been indecision, verbal gymnastics and a reluctance to step up and lead," she said in a statement.

Kerry was to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday. At the same time, Obama said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the U.N. Security Council requiring Syria's Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons and ultimately destroy them.

In the meantime, American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remain ready to strike Syria if ordered, said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Obama, in his televised address to the nation Tuesday, said the Russian plan "has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies."

Carney welcomed Russia's efforts to end the standoff but said the U.S. remains somewhat skeptical, noting that Russia had been more cooperative "in the last two days than we've seen in the last two years."

Republican Sen. John McCain, an outspoken advocate of aggressive U.S. military intervention for months, said he was concerned that the Russian plan could be a "rope-a-dope" delaying tactic, and "that the slaughter goes on."

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Nedra Pickler and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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