Kerry: ‘There is no military solution’ to end Syrian conflict

(CNN) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned Monday in an interview with CBS that his country would lash out in potentially unpredictable ways if struck over a chemical weapon attack, saying the West does not have “a single shred of evidence” to prove the claim his government was responsible.

“You should expect everything,” he told interviewer Charlie Rose, sidestepping the question of whether he would use chemical weapons against Western forces.

“That depends,” he said. “If the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen.”

He denied responsibility for a chemical weapons incident August 21 outside Damascus that U.S. officials say left more than 1,400 people dead.

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, now 2½ years old. Another 49 deaths were reported on Monday, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists.

Of Monday’s fatalities, 25 were in Damascus and its suburbs, where the August 21 attack took place, the LCC reported.

Meanwhile, calls grew for Syria to give up its chemical weapons as a possible route to avoiding a Western military strike.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that his country will urge Syria to put its chemical weapons supply under international control if doing so would avert U.S. military action.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is also considering asking the Security Council to demand the Syrian government immediately hand over its chemical weapons to be destroyed.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said his country welcomes Russia’s proposal, but it was not immediately clear whether Syria would accept the plan.

In making the proposal, Lavrov cited U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who when asked earlier in the day what al-Assad could do to stop a U.S. strike, said that the Syrian leader “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 for that.”

State Department officials tried to downplay the comment, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying Kerry was “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.”

“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,” Psaki said of Kerry.

But the Russian proposal “deserves a thorough examination,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement Monday, but the plan shouldn’t let anyone off the hook for ordering the use of poison gas, Fabius added.

In Washington, a White House official expressed doubt that al-Assad could be trusted to follow through.

“We want to take a hard look at the proposal. We’ll obviously discuss the idea with the Russians. And, of course, we would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken. But he added that Syria’s refusal to disclose its arsenal “doesn’t give you a lot of confidence.”

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called Kerry’s comments a “major goof.” The secretary of state “clearly went off-script” in making the remarks.

“There is no one in the administration who is taking this Syria proposal seriously,” the U.S. official said.

Kerry’s boss, U.S. President Barack Obama, has been at the forefront of calls for a military response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

French intelligence believes that al-Assad ordered the strike because he feared a major rebel attack from the suburbs that could have endangered his control of Damascus and the route leading to the city’s airport, according to a French Defense Ministry official who briefed reporters on background Monday.

A German newspaper, however, reported Sunday that German intelligence intercepted communications that indicate al-Assad had repeatedly denied his military approval for chemical attacks.

Tepid support

In addition to Obama, French President Francois Hollande also supports a military response, but widespread support elsewhere for an attack has been lacking.

British lawmakers voted to preclude their military from participating in any strike, and polls in France and the United States reveal little enthusiasm for military action.

U.S., British and French leaders have argued that failing to respond to such an attack, which violates international conventions, would invite more use of chemical weapons and weaken international resolve against the use of chemicals on the battlefield.

“And the question for all of us is, what are we going to do about it?” Kerry said Monday from London. “Turn our backs? Have a moment of silence? Where a dictator can with impunity threaten the rest of the world that he’s going to retaliate for his own criminal activity because he’s being held accountable?

“We live in a dangerous world as it is, folks. And that kind of threat is nothing different from the kind of threat we face every single day,” he said. “And if we don’t stand up to it, we’ll face it more, and they will think they can intimidate anybody.”

In the CBS interview, al-Assad said members of Congress contemplating authorizing an attack on Syria should realize it would only damage U.S. interests.

“So the question they should ask themselves, what do wars give America? Nothing. No political gain. No economic gain. No good reputation. The credibility is at an all-time low. So this war is against the interests of the United States,” he told CBS.

“Why? This is the war that’s going to support al Qaeda and the same people that kill Americans on the 11th of September,” he said.

Ban said Monday that if U.N. inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it would be an “abominable crime” worthy of international response. But he has previously warned against “further militarization of the conflict” in Syria.

Who ordered strike?

Syrian and Russian officials have blamed rebel forces for the August chemical attack.

On Sunday, the German Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported that communications intercepted by German intelligence aboard a ship off the Syrian coast suggest al-Assad may not have approved chemical attacks.

Citing unidentified high-level security sources, the newspaper said German intelligence had intercepted communications indicating Syrian military commanders had asked al-Assad for permission to use chemical weapons on nine occasions.

He denied those requests, according to Bild am Sonntag.

The German intelligence service, BND, declined to comment when contacted Monday by CNN regarding the account.

Russians calls for talks

Earlier Monday, Lavrov called for international talks in Moscow to avert a military strike and end Syria’s 2-year-old conflict.

Speaking in Moscow alongside his Syrian counterpart, Lavrov blamed U.S.-backed rebels in Syria for preventing a peace conference in Geneva.

Kerry argued that al-Assad won’t negotiate without a strong international response.

“If one party believes he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with impunity … he will never come to a negotiating table,” Kerry said in London.

But Lavrov said in Moscow that Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, “said quite clearly Damascus is ready to participate in a positive way” in negotiations.

Lavrov said the Russian government would work with other nations to promote negotiations, “and if we can understand these contacts will help, then we can invite all those interested in the world to Moscow.”

Kerry: Strike or no, political solution required

Kerry rejected arguments that rebels could have launched the August 21 attack, saying those groups don’t have the scientific or military capability to deliver such weapons.

He also repeated American claims that the rockets used in the attack were launched from regime-controlled territory.

Despite the need for a military response, Kerry said, U.S. officials believe arms aren’t the answer to the Syrian conflict. Kerry said the United States still supports a future round of talks in Geneva.

“The end to the conflict in Syria requires a political solution,” he said. “There is no military solution.”

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