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State Department: Kerry's remark on al-Assad giving up weapons 'rhetorical'

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Monday, September 9, 2013 - 9:00am

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The State Department sought Monday to clarify comments from Secretary of State John Kerry about how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could prevent a military strike from the United States.

Al-Assad "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," Kerry said during a press conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done, obviously."

Kerry made the remarks in London during the final stop of a trip that also included stops in Lithuania and France, with the international response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons dominating the conversation.

A spokeswoman for Kerry sought to put his remarks in context moments later.

"Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The Obama administration says the Assad government was responsible for an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed over a thousand people. President Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike in response to that attack.

Kerry's point "was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago," Psaki said. "That's why the world faces this moment."

Russia, however, appeared to view Kerry's comment as more than rhetorical.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Russia will urge Syria to put its chemical weapons supply under international control if doing so would avert U.S. military action, the Reuters news service reported Monday.

Kerry is due to participate in a classified briefing about Syria to members of the House of Representatives after his return from London later Monday.

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