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'Possible breakthrough in Syrian crisis'

Russia proposed that Syria hand over its chemical weapons for destruction.

The head of a UN mission warned of "civil war" in Syria after his observers counted more than 92 bodies, 32 of them children on 26 May, 2012. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama said on Monday he saw a possible breakthrough in the crisis with Syria after Russia proposed that its ally Damascus hand over its chemical weapons for destruction, which could avert planned US military strikes.

But Obama, speaking in a series of television interviews, remained sceptical and pushed ahead to persuade a reluctant and divided Congress to back potential US action, saying the threat of force was needed to press Syria to make concessions.

In an extraordinary day of diplomacy over the war-wracked Middle Eastern country, Russia seized on an apparently throwaway public remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry to fashion a new approach that could save face for all sides.

"My preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem," Obama told NBC. He said an agreement for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons to international control would not solve the "underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria."

He added: "But if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action that would be my preference."

"It's possible that we can get a breakthrough," Obama told CNN, although there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over more than two years of civil war.

In Congress, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid pushed back a Senate test vote on possible US strikes that had been scheduled for Wednesday as lawmakers evaluate the Russian plan.

The vote is still expected this week, and a more contentious vote would later be held in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The dramatic diplomatic twist in weeks of high-tension international wrangling came when Kerry was asked by a reporter during a visit to London whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a US military strike.

"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. 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.

RUSSIAN PROPOSAL

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had put what sounded like Kerry's proposal to his visiting Syrian counterpart during talks in Moscow. Walid al-Moualem said Damascus welcomed the Russian initiative - while not spelling out whether Syria would, or even could, comply.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has blocked UN action against Assad and says Obama would be guilty of unlawful aggression if he launches an attack without UN approval.

Rebels fighting Assad's forces on the ground, where hundreds are being killed by conventional bullets and explosives every week, dismissed any such weapons transfer as impossible to police and a decoy to frustrate US plans to attack.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took up the same theme, saying that he might ask the Security Council to end its "embarrassing paralysis" over Syria and agree to act.

Asked about Lavrov's proposal, Ban said: "I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed."

Britain and France, permanent members of the Security Council with Russia, China and the United States, both tentatively welcomed the Russian proposal.

1925 TREATY

UN chemical weapons inspectors were in Damascus at the time of the August attack, which Assad and Putin have blamed on rebel forces. Ban said that if the evidence they were able to gather - after lengthy bargaining over their movements with Syrian officials - proved the use of toxins, the world must act.

Syria, which has never signed a global treaty banning the storage of chemical weapons, is believed to have large stocks of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agents - the actual use of which is banned by a 1925 treaty to which Damascus is a signatory.

Obama said he was pressing ahead to secure approval in Congress for limited and targeted strikes against Syria, aware of the strong opposition of most Americans after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Assad himself warned of reprisals - if he were attacked Americans could "expect every action", he told CBS television.

Inside Syria, government forces launched an offensive to wrest back control of a historic Christian town north of Damascus on Monday, activists said. In the past six days, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between Assad's forces and rebels, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda.