ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed to pursue a diplomatic initiative with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons but voiced skepticism about it Tuesday night in a nationally televised address and urged Americans to support his threat to use military force.
Mr. Obama said that a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar Assad to place his country’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control offered the possibility of heading off the type of limited military strike that Mr. Obama is considering against Syria.
Speaking from the White House’s East Room, the President said U.S. and Russian officials will keep talking about the initiative and that he will discuss it with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
RELATED CONTENT: Text of the President's address on Syria
Meanwhile, he said, he has asked the Senate to put off a vote on his request for an authorization of military force to let the diplomacy play out.
He set no timetables for action, but said any deal with Assad would require verification that he keep his word.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
The Russian offer put the brakes on a vote in Congress over authorizing military force as lawmakers and the Obama Administration sought more time to assess Russia’s proposal.
Mr. Obama has faced resistance in Congress to any military action.
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue were quick to seize on the Russian proposal as a possible way out, despite skepticism.
Mr. Obama used much of Tuesday night’s speech to lay out the case against Syria, saying plenty of evidence exists showing that the Syrian government was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
He argued that Syria should face consequences for using such weapons because much of the world has long since adopted a ban on chemical weapons and that if the civilized world does nothing to respond, it will only embolden U.S. adversaries.
“If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” Mr. Obama said.
On Capitol Hill, at the United Nations, and in foreign capitals, officials flocked to endorse Russia’s proposal as an alternative to involving the United States in the 2½-year-old civil war in Syria.
The proposal also won the backing of the Syrian government.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday that Syria would turn over its chemical weapons arsenal to Russia, the United Nations, and “other countries” — a startling concession, considering that as recently as this week Assad had disputed that Syria even possessed chemical weapons.
But administration officials, lawmakers, and diplomats all expressed doubts about the Russian plan.
Some said it would allow Syria to play for time and was calculated to undermine the drive for congressional and international support for a strike. Others said the idea of securing chemical weapons stockpiles in the midst of a civil war was fanciful.
Moreover, the diplomatic efforts — which began after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced his proposal Monday — quickly ran into trouble.
A meeting of the U.N. Security Council was canceled on Tuesday after Russia clashed with the United States and France over whether to make its proposal binding and back it up with the threat of force.
“We need a full resolution from the Security Council to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a social media interview sponsored by Google. “Right now the Russians are in a slightly different place on that.”
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov will meet in Geneva on Thursday to work out these disagreements.
Before Russia made its announcement, Mr. Kerry expressed skepticism that Syria could be trusted to turn over its stockpile, which is dispersed in multiple locations around the country.
In testimony to Congress on Tuesday, he described the Obama Administration’s position on the Russian plan.
“It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable,” Mr. Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee. “It cannot be a delaying tactic.”
Mr. Obama’s decision to work through the Security Council is itself a shift.
Ten days ago, he described it as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”
But administration officials said they were swayed by the level of detail in the Russian proposal, which grew out of an impromptu conversation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Russia last week.
“The Lavrov statement was quite comprehensive,” a senior administration official said. “Frankly, it exceeded expectations in the level of detail it went into.”
On Capitol Hill, senators emerged from lunchtime meetings with Mr. Obama optimistic that Congress could shift from a resolution authorizing force to one that would give diplomacy more time.
The President impressed on them the need to keep the pressure on Syria and Russia, but expressed support for a delay in any vote until the Security Council makes clear what it plans to do.
“I didn’t see any anxiety on the part of the President for an immediate need for action,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D., Md.).
While the U.S. House of Representatives was considered the major obstacle for Mr. Obama in seeking approval for a strike, a shift in the Senate began taking shape before the Russian proposal Monday, when it became clear that the straightforward resolution authorizing force was highly unlikely to pass there either.
Only a handful of Republicans were yes votes, and at least 15 Democrats were likely to vote no.
In Syria, the war raged unabated across the country Tuesday. Government air and artillery strikes bombarded towns across the Damascus suburbs. Rebels and security forces traded barrages around the central city of Homs. Infighting continued among rebel groups.
The fighting was a reminder that even if the debate over chemical munitions is resolved, there is little sign it will end the war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.