Facing weak support for U.S. military action, President Barack Obama said Monday that a plan to have Syria hand its chemical arsenal over to international control could avert American strikes "if it's real."
"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 on Monday. But Obama said the threat of American force would remain, "And we don't want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now."
Obama was making the rounds of television interviews in an effort to shore up support for a congressional resolution that would authorize him to launch punitive raids on Syria, which his administration accuses of using poison gas against opposition forces and civilians. He's scheduled to address the nation Tuesday night, and that speech is still on, he said.
But a CNN/ORC International Poll out Monday found Americans strongly opposed to attacking Syria. Of the 1,022 people polled between Friday and Sunday, 59% said Congress should not authorize military action, and 72% said American strikes would achieve no significant goals.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid postponed a procedural vote that had been scheduled for Wednesday after the proposal floated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. An aide said the Russia proposal on chemical weapons is serious and fluid enough that senators do not want to lock themselves into a position on Syria just yet.
The Russian proposal came after comments by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier Monday -- remarks that the State Department said were meant to be rhetorical, but which Lavrov proposed concretely.
Asked during a stop in London whether there was anything Syrian President Bashar 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" -- adding, "He isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
Soon afterward, Lavrov said Russia, Syria's leading ally, urged al-Assad to do just that if it would avert a U.S. military response. And Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who was meeting with Lavrov in Moscow, told reporters that Damascus welcomes the proposal.
"We are also confident in the wisdom of the Russian government, which is trying to prevent an American aggression against our people," Moallem said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington remained "highly skeptical" of the Syrian regime. But Obama told CNN, "We have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now," suggesting his threat of force had prompted "some interesting conversations."
"We're going to run this to ground," the president said. "And John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."
'Expect everything' if U.S. attacks, al-Assad says
Washington accuses Syria's government of launching a chemical attack outside Damascus on August 21, killing more than 1,400 people, hundreds of women and children among them. That led to Obama's call for military action, with the American leader arguing that strikes are needed to enforce a longstanding international taboo on the use of poison gas.
Syria denies its forces unleashed chemical weapons, and al-Assad said government troops were on the receiving end of a gas attack. Al-Assad told "CBS This Morning" interviewer Charlie Rose on Monday that the West lacks "a single shred of evidence" that his government was behind the attack.
Samples collected by U.N. weapons inspectors are still being tested, and even then, the inspection team was charged only with determining whether chemical weapons were used -- not who used them. But Washington says it knows the trajectory of the rockets used to deliver the gas, that Syrian commanders ordered troops to don gas masks and learned of fears by top Syrian officials that U.N. inspectors would discover evidence of the attack.
Al-Assad warned Monday that his country would lash out in potentially unpredictable ways after a U.S. military strike, telling CBS, "You should expect everything." He sidestepped the question of whether he would use chemical weapons against Western forces, but invoked the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington to warn that military action has unforeseen consequences.
"It is difficult for anyone to tell you what is going to happen," he said. "It's an area where everything is on the brink of explosion."
But on CNN's "The Situation Room," Obama snapped back that Syria is no threat to the United States.
"Mr. Assad doesn't have a lot of capability," Obama said. "He has capability relative to children. He has capability relative to an opposition that is still getting itself organized and are not professional, trained fighters. He doesn't have a credible means to threaten the United States."
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, now 2½ years old. Another 76 deaths were reported on Monday, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists.