Russia has urged Syria to "destroy" its chemical weapons, seizing on an apparent American offer to cancel military strikes if President Bashar al-Assad disarmed within a week.
The US proposal was little more than an off-the-cuff remark made by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, during a press conference in London. But it gave Russia and Syria an opening to try to delay any American-led attack.
The Kremlin quickly took the opportunity, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov urging Mr Assad to place Syria's chemical weapons "under international control". Syria then responded by "welcoming" – although not accepting – Russia's idea.
The move, the first time the Assad regime has been offered a chance to avert an attack, threatens a new diplomatic headache for the White House just as it is struggling to persuade a sceptical US Congress to back military action.
But Hillary Clinton, Mr Kerry's predecessor, said that if the Syrian regime was to immediately cede control of its chemical weapons it would be an "important step".
"This cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction and Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account," she said. Meanwhile, Mr Kerry was criticised for saying US strikes would be "unbelievably small", language some Republicans claimed sent the wrong message to the Syrian president.
Assad himself gave an interview to American television yesterday, warning the US to expect "everything" if it carried out air strikes on his country.
At the start of a critical week, both men emphasised how mounting evidence proved Assad's responsibility for the poison gas attacks in Damascus on August 21 – with Mr Kerry, a lawyer by profession, saying the case was strong enough to take to court. "I tried people who've gone away for long prison sentences – or for life – for less evidence," he said. However, when asked whether there was anything that Assad could do to avoid military action, Mr Kerry replied: "Sure, he could turn over every bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
Russia was quick to exploit Mr Kerry's words. Mr Lavrov called a press conference, saying: "We call on the Syrian leadership not only to agree on a statement of storage of chemical weapons under international control, but also its subsequent destruction."
The response from Syria came within hours from Walid al-Muallem, the foreign minister, who happens to be visiting Moscow. "The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes this initiative to remove chemical weapons to ensure the safety of our citizens and the security of our country," he said in a short statement to journalists. (© Daily Telegraph, London)