WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address Tuesday night that recent diplomatic steps offer “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons” inside Syria without the use of force, but he also insisted the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad “and be ready to respond” if other measures fail.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.
Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said, “America is not the world’s policeman.”
And yet, he added, “When with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria,” he declared.
In a speech that lasted 16 minutes, Obama recounted the events of the deadly chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that the United States blames on Assad.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until these horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied,” he said.
The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and first asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike — who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad’s military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
The president said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, “I will continue my own discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A Russian plan for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to avert Western missile strikes bogged down earlier Tuesday when Moscow rejected U.S. and French demands for a binding U.N. resolution with “very severe consequences” for non-compliance.
The surprise Russian proposal, which Syria and the United States both accepted, would put President Bashar Assad’s regime’s chemical stockpile under international control before its eventual dismantling. The initiative — also cautiously endorsed by Britain and France — appeared to offer a way out of a crisis that raised the prospect of U.S.-led military action against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.
But the plan ran aground as the world powers haggled over the crucial element of how to enforce it. Wary of falling into what the French foreign minister called “a trap,” Paris and Washington are pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify Syria’s disarmament. Russia, a close Assad ally and the regime’s chief patron on the international stage, dismissed France’s proposal as unacceptable.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said early Tuesday during a trip to Moscow that Damascus “agreed to the Russian initiative as it should thwart the U.S. aggression against our country.”
Before departing Moscow in the evening, al-Moallem told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV that Syria would place its chemical weapons locations in the hands of representatives of Russia, other unspecified countries and the United Nations. Syria will also declare the chemical arsenal it long denied having, stop producing such weapons and sign conventions against them.
Mindful that Damascus could only be seeking to avoid Western military strikes, France said it would put forward a draft resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, making it enforceable with military action.
The prospect of a deal that could be enforced militarily met swift opposition from Russia, which has provided economic, military and diplomatic support to Assad throughout the 2½-year conflict.
Putin said the plan can only work if “the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force.” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told his French counterpart that it is unacceptable for the resolution to cite Chapter 7, the U.N. resolution authorizing force, his ministry said in a statement.
Kerry, in turn, said the U.S. rejects a Russian suggestion that the U.N. endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the Security Council president.
The U.S. has to have a full resolution — one that entails “consequences if games are played and somebody tries to undermine this,” he said.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, dismissed the Assad government’s turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment for what it called a crime against humanity. The coalition had been hoping for military strikes from abroad to tip the balance in the war of attrition between rebels and Assad’s forces.
In a statement Tuesday, the Coalition said Moscow’s proposal “aims to procrastinate and will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people.”
“Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes,” the group said.
The plan would allow Assad to avoid the damage that U.S.-led strikes, no matter how narrow and limited, would likely inflict on a Syrian military already stretched thin and under tremendous strain from the civil war. While Assad would be forced to relinquish his chemical arms stockpile, doing so is unlikely to deal a devastating blow to his war machine.
Nor is it likely to stanch the bloodshed. The U.S. and the Syrian opposition accuse the regime of using such weapons on several occasions, but the casualties from those attacks have been a mere fraction of the total death toll from the conflict.
“What does it change if you take the chemical weapons from Bashar Assad? Does it stop the real danger?” asked Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. “He’s not just killing us with chemical weapons. Bashar Assad is killing us with all of his weapons, by all his forces.”