President Barack Obama has said he will put plans for a military strike against Syria on hold if the country agrees to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international control.
However, the US president said he was skeptical the Syrian government would follow through.
As the US Congress debates authorizing an attack, Russia on Monday proposed Syria relinquish its chemical weapons.
The US accuses Damascus of war crimes including use of chemical weapons, allegations denied by the regime.
Barack Obama on Monday gave a series of television interviews aimed at building support among a US Congress and public wary of new military action in the Middle East.
The president maintains a limited strike is needed to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons and to deter it from using them again.
“I want to make sure that norm against use of chemical weapons is maintained,” Barack Obama told ABC News.
“That’s in our national security interest. If we can do that without a military strike that is overwhelmingly my preference.”
Asked by Diane Sawyer of ABC News if he would put plans for an attack on pause should Bashar al-Assad yield control of his chemical weapons, Barack Obama answered: “Absolutely, if in fact that happened.”
Barack Obama said he would continue to press the US Congress to back a resolution authorizing him to take military action against Syria, but he implied the timeline for action had shifted.
Barack Obama has said he will put plans for a military strike against Syria on hold if the country agrees to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international control
“The stakes are high, but they are long term,” he said, adding that he did not “foresee a succession of votes this week, or any time in the immediate future”.
Barack Obama added: “I don’t think that we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike, and I don’t think now is the time for us to let up on that.”
US senators had been expected to take a first vote on the issue on Wednesday, but the test vote on the legislation was postponed on Monday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who cited “international discussions” as a reason for the delay.
Many US politicians and members of the public remain concerned that military action could draw the nation into a prolonged war and spark broader hostilities in the region.
Support in Congress for a measure authorizing attacks on Syria has remained relatively low, with more than 230 of the 433 members in the House of Representatives reportedly either opposed to or likely to oppose strikes as of Friday.
In addition, opinion polls suggest Americans remain wary of a strike against Syria, with only one in five believing that a failure to respond to chemical weapons attacks would embolden other governments, according to an Associated Press poll concluded on Monday.
Barack Obama’s remarks came after Russia asked Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed, in an attempt to avoid US military strikes.
The idea appeared to have stemmed from an inadvertent suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry.
When asked at a news conference whether there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid a military strike, John Kerry replied that he could hand over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week.
Although US officials subsequently said John Kerry had made a “rhetorical argument” rather than a serious offer, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said he presented the proposal during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.
Sergei Lavrov revealed that he had urged Walid Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction”.
He said he had also told Walid Muallem that Syria should then fully join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Walid Muallem told reporters through an interpreter that Syria welcomed the initiative, and he praised Russia for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people”.
Barack Obama on Monday told NBC News he was “skeptical” of Syria’s professed interest in relinquishing its weapons, because “this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years”.
But he suggested the matter would never have arisen in talks between Russia and Syria “unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike, and I don’t think now is the time for us to let up on that”.
President Barack Obama’s plans for a military strike on Syria have won backing from key US political figures.
Barack Obama said a “limited” strike was needed to degrade President Bashar al-Assad’s capabilities in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.
Key Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor both signaled their support for military action. Congress is expected to vote next week.
The UN earlier confirmed that more than two million Syrians were now refugees.
More than 100,000 people are thought to have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden met House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the chairmen and ranking members from the national security committees in Washington on Tuesday.
John Boehner signaled his support for Barack Obama’s call for action, saying that only the US had the capacity to stop President Bashar al-Assad. John Boehner urged his colleagues in Congress to follow suit.
Eric Cantor, the House of Representatives majority leader, said he also backed Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama’s plans for a military strike on Syria have won backing from key US political figures
The Virginia Republican said: “Assad’s Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, is the epitome of a rogue state, and it has long posed a direct threat to American interests and to our partners.”
Nancy Pelosi said she did not believe Congress would reject a resolution calling for force.
Barack Obama said that Bashar al-Assad had to be held accountable for the chemical attack and that he was confident Congress would back him.
He said he was proposing military action that would degrade Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons “now and in the future”.
“What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional,” the president said.
“At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the top US military officer, Gen Martin Dempsey, are appearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
John Kerry told the panel that US allies such as Israel and Jordan were “one stiff breeze” away from potentially being hurt by any fresh chemical weapons attacks, and that US inaction would only embolden the Syrian president.
“This is not the time for armchair isolationism,” John Kerry said.
“This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor out conscience can afford the cost of silence.
“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror many times in the past. Now we must stand up and act.”
But John Kerry said again that there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria and that Barack Obama was “not asking America to go to war”.
Chuck Hagel said that “the word of the United States must mean something” and echoed John Kerry when adding: “A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments, including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
There will also be a classified briefing for all members of Congress.
Barack Obama will head to Sweden late on Tuesday for a G20 meeting sure to be dominated by Syria.
France has strongly backed the US plan for military action.
President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday: “When a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer.”
Francois Hollande called for Europe to unite on the issue, but said he would wait for the Congress vote.
President Francois Hollande has announced that France is still ready to take action in Syria alongside the US, despite UK MPs blocking British involvement.
Francois Hollande said a military strike within days could not be ruled out.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said after the UK vote that Washington would continue to seek a coalition.
The UN is investigating claims that the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad denies the claims, blaming rebels.
UN chemical weapons inspectors visited a hospital in a government-controlled area of Damascus on Friday.
They are due to give their preliminary findings to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend.
Francois Hollande told Le Monde newspaper that the UK vote, in which parliament rejected a government motion supporting the principle of military action, made no difference to France’s position.
“Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France,” he said.
He said that if the UN Security Council was unable to act, a coalition would form including the Arab League and European countries.
“But there are few countries which can have the capacity of enforcing any sanction through the appropriate measures,” he said.
“France will be part of it. France is ready.”
Francois Hollande ruled out strikes while the UN inspectors were in Syria. However he did not rule out the possibility that military action could be taken before next Wednesday, when the French parliament is due to debate the issue.
France is still ready to take action in Syria alongside the US, despite UK MPs blocking British involvement
Neither France nor the US need parliamentary approval for action, and Secretary of State John Kerry said the US could not be held to the foreign policy of others.
The UK vote was welcomed in Russia, Syria’s main international ally.
Moscow said it reflected a growing public understanding of the dangers of an attack.
Syrian MPs are also delighted with the UK vote.
They believe a letter they sent to the UK parliament inviting their British counterparts to inspect the evidence of chemical attacks had helped sway the vote against military action.
China, which has vetoed previous UN Security Council resolutions against Syria, reiterated on Friday that no action should be taken until the UN inspectors have reported on their findings.
And Germany said of military action that “such participation has not been sought nor is it being considered”.
Officials in the US and UK had been insistent throughout the week that the Assad regime had carried out a poison-gas attack in eastern Damascus on August 21 in which hundreds were killed.
However, British PM David Cameron told parliament on Thursday he could not be 100% sure.
In the US, government officials briefed a Congressional committee on the case for launching action against Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Eliot Engel, the top Democratic member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters after the briefing that officials had said it was “beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were used, and used intentionally by the Assad regime”.
He said officials had cited evidence including “intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials”.
Reports in the US media this week described Syrian officials suggesting in phone conversations that the chemical weapons attack had been more devastating than was intended.
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011, and the conflict has produced at least 1.7 million refugees.
Forces which could be used against Syria:
• Four US destroyers – USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan – are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations
• Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes
• Two aircraft carriers – USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region
• French aircraft carrierCharles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean
• French Raffale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE