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Syria war of words: What Obama and Assad say, and what they really mean

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a briefing in Moscow, September 9, 2013.


The war of words over Syria is intensifying as world leaders battle over the planned U.S. military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus last month.

Here's the latest:

What Russia says
Russia said Monday that it would push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and dismantle them to avert U.S. strikes.

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"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons."

What it means
Russia's surprise move came a few hours after Secretary of State John Kerry said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could resolve the crisis by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week. Mr. Kerry added that he did not expect the regime to take such action. However, Russia, which is a strong ally of Syria, appears to be trying to find a way out of the crisis and avert planned U.S. strikes.

What Syria says
Mr. al-Assad warned that the U.S. should "expect everything" in retaliation for American military action in Syria.

"You should expect everything," he told CBS on Sunday. "Not necessarily through the government. The governments are not the only player in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology. You have everything in this region now. So you have to expect that."

Asked whether such retaliation could include chemical warfare, Mr. al-Assad said: "That depends if the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it. It could happen, I don't know. I am not fortune teller to you about what's going to happen."

What it means
In addition to possible retaliation by Syria, Mr. al-Assad is raising the stakes by warning a strike would trigger reprisals by two of his allies in the region: Iran and Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group based in Lebanon.

What the U.S. says
Mr. Kerry told reporters in London on Monday that the U.S. would unleash "an unbelievably small" strike on Syria.

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"We're not going to war," he said. "We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort, in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing; an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."

What it means
As U.S. President Barack Obama takes his military response plan to Congress, opposition is building at home. In seeking to downplay the administration's intentions, Mr. Kerry is trying to help build a case for military action in advance of the first vote, which will could happen in the Senate on Wednesday.

What Syria says
Mr. al-Assad also warned that a U.S. attack on Syria would amount to support for al-Qaeda.

"This war is against the interests of the United States. Why? First of all because this is the war that's going to support al-Qaeda and the same people that kill Americans [on] the 11 of September," he told CBS.

What it means
Mr. al-Assad is ratcheting up his regime's rhetoric that U.S. military action would strengthen al-Qaeda and its affiliates, including Jabat al-Nusra and the State of Islam in Syria and Iraq, which have aligned with opposition forces in Syria. The government also argues that U.S. strikes would destabilize the Middle East and increase anti-American sentiment.

With a report from The Associated Press

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