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White House says to take 'hard look' at Russia offer on Syria

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken speaks on Syria at the White House in Washington, September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarq
U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken speaks on Syria at the White House in Washington, September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarq

(Reuters) - The White House will closely examine Russia's offer to work with Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control but the U.S. Congress should still back military action to keep pressure on Damascus, a top aide said on Monday.

"We want to take a hard look at the proposal," deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken told reporters. "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."

Russia, a key ally to Syria, broached the idea on Monday as a way to avert military strikes that President Barack Obama has said are needed to hold the Syrian government accountable for killing more than 1,400 people in an August 21 chemical weapons attack.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told reporters he welcomed the proposal.

Blinken sounded a note of skepticism, saying Russia had repeatedly blocked efforts at the United Nations to deal with Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, and noting that Syria's government had refused to sign a treaty to prohibit their use.

Securing the stockpile "would certainly take time, resources, and probably a peaceful environment," Blinken said. Blinken said the administration had not had a chance to discuss the offer with Russia.

The offer came two days ahead of a vote in the U.S. Senate on authorizing military force. It is uncertain if there will be enough votes to pass the measure.

Obama and his aides have mounted a big public campaign to build support in Congress and among the American people weary after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wary of being drawn into Syria's civil war.

"It's important to note that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the president is exerting," Blinken told reporters.

"So it is even more important that we don't take the pressure off and that Congress give the president the authority he's requested," he said.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton; editing by Jackie Frank and David Storey)

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