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President Obama blends threat of attack, hope of diplomacy in Syria talk

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 10 2013 1:56 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper Terrance Gainer, right, leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, where they discussed Syria. On Tuesday night, the president will address the nation on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

WASHINGTON — In the run-up to a prime-time televised speech, President Barack Obama blended the threat of a military strike with the hope of a diplomatic solution Tuesday as he worked to rid Syria of an illicit stockpile of fearsome chemical weapons.

The administration and members of Congress, all skeptical of Syria's intentions, also looked to the United Nations as the Security Council arranged closed-door consultations on steps against the government of President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

While Obama made his case in person on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a congressional hearing there was still a clear need to support the president's call for legislation authorizing a military strike.

"For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue," Hagel said.

At the same hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry said any diplomacy "cannot be a process of delay. This cannot be a process of avoidance."

He later added that any agreement must include binding consequences if Syria fails to comply, and lawmakers moved quickly to rewrite pending legislation along the same lines.

Obama himself "wasn't overly optimistic about" prospects for a solution at the U.N., said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, after his party's rank and file met privately for lunch in the Capitol with the president. He quoted Obama as saying that even if a credible plan could be worked out, it could be difficult to push through the U.N. Security Council.

The president readied his nationwide speech against a unpredictable chain of events stemming from a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21 that the Obama administration swiftly blamed on Assad's government.

U.S. officials say more than 1,400 died in the episode, including at least 400 children, and other victims suffered uncontrollable twitching, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms typical of exposure to chemical weapons banned by international treaty. Other casualty estimates are lower, and Assad has said the attack was launched by rebels who have been fighting to drive him from power in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians.

Assad's patron, Russia, has blocked U.S. attempts to rally the Security Council behind a military strike. But Monday, after a remark by Kerry, it spoke favorably about requiring Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons, and the Syrian foreign minister did likewise.

The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that his government was ready to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in line with Russia's proposal in order "to thwart U.S. aggression." He also said Syria is prepared to implement a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control.

Syria has never provided an accounting of the size of its stockpile, rarely referring in public to its existence. According to an unclassified estimate by the French government, it includes more than 1,000 tons of "chemical agents and precursor chemicals," including sulfur mustard, VX and sarin gas

Obama has said frequently he has the authority as commander in chief to order a military strike against Assad regardless of any vote in Congress, and he has consistently declined to say whether he would do so if lawmakers refuse to approve the legislation he is seeking.

The response in Congress to support such a strike has been lukewarm at best — as underscored during the day when liberal Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and conservative Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., both announced their opposition.

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