Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a U.S. military strike by surrendering all his chemical weapons within a week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, but immediately made clear he was not making a serious offer.
President Barack Obama is seeking support from Congress for punitive military action against Syria over a suspected chemical weapons attack in a civil war that the United Nations says has killed at least 100,000 people.
When asked by a reporter in London whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a military strike, Kerry answered:
"Sure, he 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 the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which Assad denies his forces used in the Aug. 21 poison gas attack.
In an interview with U.S. television network CBS, Assad said the United States would be going against its own interests if it got involved in Syria, warning of repercussions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's only big-power supporter, says opponents of Assad staged the attack to provoke U.S.-led military intervention, an allegation Kerry dismissed out of hand on Monday.
Putin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met Assad's foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, in Moscow on Monday and the two urged Washington to concentrate on convening a Syrian peace conference rather than on military action.
Moualem suggested the chemical attack was a pretext to trigger military intervention and asked whether Obama was backing "terrorists" - an allusion to radical Islamists, who are prominent in the ranks of rebels fighting to topple Assad.
WAR IN SYRIA
Kerry said he was confident of the evidence that the United States and its allies had presented to support their case that Assad's forces used poison gas, though he said he understood scepticism lingering from the 2003 Iraq war - in which cited intelligence about weapons of