White House: Syria chemical weapons agreement must be verifiable

As international leaders begin negotiations over a plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, the White House on Wednesday said any plan must at least include a way to verify the removal of the weapons from Syrian President Bashar Assad's control. The White House declined to give any further conditions or lay out a timeline for negotiations.

"It's simply too early to begin, from here, to pinpoint what must be in the United Nations Security Council resolution beyond a verifiable process for removing chemical weapons from Assad's control into international control," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Given the serious challenge of verifiably removing chemical weapons from a war-torn nation, Carney said "Syria would have to keep any commitment it made to allow for this process and to facilitate this process." Russia, he added, as the nation that first proposed the plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, "would have to engage directly in verifying and making it happen."

While Carney said the Obama administration is "not interested in delaying tactics," he did acknowledge that the negotiations "obviously will take some time."

"There are technical aspects involved in developing a plan for securing Syria's chemical weapons and verifying their location and putting them under international control," he said.

The timeline for the process will be worked out at the United Nations Security Council, Carney said, noting that officials from the five permanent members of the Security Council are meeting Wednesday afternoon. The "more technical aspects" regarding the implementation of a plan, Carney said, will be discussed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, Switzerland.

The White House spokesman acknowledged that there's "ample reason" to be skeptical of Syria's offer to hand over its chemical weapons, but he said, "You don't negotiate these kinds of things with partners that have always been willing or with interlocutors that have always been helpful. You wouldn't have to."

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS News on Wednesday that a potential timeline could emerge from Kerry's meeting with Lavrov.

"What comes forth from that, that will be in just the next couple of days, will give us a much clearer picture," he said, "of number one, the real possibility of this -- the seriousness of the Russians, the seriousness of the Syrians in accepting any proposal of that might come forth -- and... how we might look at timeframes as part of the resolution."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CBS News he was only willing to give the diplomatic approach "a short period of time."

In the event that there is an agreement for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, McCain said that Congress should play an "oversight role."

"We are looking at different ways for reporting procedures and the things that you normally do," he said. While Congress couldn't force Syria's compliance, McCain said, "There would be a timeline of reporting, of progress or lack of progress meeting certain benchmarks."

On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered a prime-time televised address to the nation, explaining that he's asked Congress to postpone a vote authorizing the use of force in Syria. More than a week ago, Mr. Obama said hewanted to use military force in response to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons. However, now that Syria has offered to turn over its weapons, the president has said they could reach a diplomatic resolution to the issue. The president argued Tuesday night that the U.S. must keep the threat of military force on the table to push negotiations forward.

Even though the situation has changed dramatically in the past week -- as recently as Sunday, inan interview with Charlie Rose, Assad refused to even acknowledge the existence of his chemical weapons -- Carney said Wednesday that the president never considered cancelling his prime-time address to the nation.

"The president believed it was a useful thing to do to have the opportunity to speak to the American people," Carney said. "And, you know... gone are the days when even a speech like that is seen by the vast majority of Americans. And we will continue to have this discussion as we have over the last several days, that the president has through interviews, in the days ahead."