WASHINGTON The White House warned on Wednesday that a diplomatic solution over Syria would take "some time" and pledged to pursue talks despite skepticism from U.S. lawmakers that Damascus would make good on a Russian plan to surrender its chemical weapons.
A day after President Barack Obama urged Americans to support his call for military strikes if diplomacy failed, officials warned of a long process ahead.
The diplomatic initiative, kicked off by Syria's close ally Russia as a way to avert U.S. military strikes, was scheduled to move forward on Thursday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The State Department said those talks would last two days or more. At the heart of the talks will be Russia's opposition to a continued threat of military action that Washington says is needed to ensure Syria complies.
"We are doing the responsible thing here, which is testing the potential there for success," White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing, referring to a diplomatic push.
"I suspect this will take some time."
A senior State Department official said Kerry and Lavrov had spoken about their desire while in Geneva to have "a substantive discussion about the mechanics of identifying, verifying and ultimately destroying Assad's chemical weapons stockpile so they can never be used again," referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia's proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to international control, which has been agreed by Damascus, was seen by Obama as a possible way to avoid a military strike opposed by most Americans.
There has also been stiff opposition in Congress to military intervention. Obama conceded on Monday that he was not confident he had the votes for congressional authorization.
Obama wants to hold Assad accountable for a suspected chemical weapons attack in a Damascus neighborhood on August 21 that U.S. officials say killed about 1,400 people including 400 children. Syria denies it instigated such an attack.
U.S. lawmakers expressed skepticism about Russia's plan.
Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNBC he was "1,000 percent supportive of us figuring out the right solution here diplomatically" but that he had "zero trust" in Russia.
Senator John McCain, a Republican who has been one of the most vocal proponents of a military strike, told a Wall Street Journal breakfast roundtable with reporters that he was not optimistic that diplomacy would succeed.
"Put me down as extremely skeptical," said McCain, who is among a bipartisan group of nine senators seeking to draft a resolution that would be presented to Congress for a vote if a diplomatic agreement is reached.
Under that proposal, U.S. action would depend on a U.N. resolution demanding Assad put his chemical weapons under U.N. international control by a certain date. If he failed to do so, Obama would be authorized to use force.
DEFENSE CHIEF CALLS WARSHIP
Obama said on Tuesday he ordered the military to maintain its current posture in case diplomacy fails.
To that end, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday called the commanding officer of the USS Barry, a guided missile destroyer that is one of the ships standing at a heightened state of readiness in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Hagel commended the Barry and other ships in its group for "ensuring that the United States military can carry out the orders of the commander-in-chief, if called upon," the Pentagon said.
Some members of Congress said it was vital to maintain the threat of force. Damascus had previously denied it had used such weapons and refused to admit it even had a chemical weapons program.
"Assad and the Russian backers would not have raised that possibility (of scrapping the weapons) if they did not face the threat of military force, and they are unlikely to follow through if the threat does not remain credible," Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a meeting of defense reporters.
He backed a provision in the French draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would open the way for military action if Syria fails to act on the weapons.
"America must be vigilant and be willing to use force if necessary and Congress should not take the threat of military force off the table," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.
"If there's any indication these (talks) are not serious, if it's a ploy to delay, to obstruct, to divert, then I think we have to again give the president the authority to hold the Assad regime accountable," he said.
U.S. lawmakers said the Senate could start voting next week on a resolution to authorize the use of military force if diplomatic efforts fell short.
The Obama administration kept up its drive to win support for its approach.
Vice President Joe Biden held two classified briefings at the White House for groups of Republicans from the House of Representatives, and deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken held a classified briefing for all House Democrats, an administration official said.
McCain questioned the decision to have Kerry meet with Lavrov, saying the United States needs to press ahead with more forceful action. "I feel badly, very badly for my friends in the Free Syrian Army today," he told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program.
"There is nothing more that will drive Syrians into the hands of the extremists than to feel that they have been abandoned by the West."
The rebel Syrian National Coalition has decried the diplomatic proposal as a "cheap trick" that would allow Assad more time to kill Syrians.
Kerry also intends to meet with U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi while in Geneva, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Thomas Ferraro, Paul Eckert, Tabassum Zakaria, Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart; Editing by Karey Van Hall, David Storey, Jim Loney and Mohammad Zargham)