Obama conditionally backs offer on Syria

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11 2013 10:07 a.m. MDT

In this June 18, 2012, file photo President Barack Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, go to shake hands during their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. In a few days' worth of opportunistic diplomacy, Vladimir Putin has revived memories of an era many thought long gone, where the United States and Soviet Union jostled for influence in a Middle East torn between two powers.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama conditionally endorsed a Russian offer for international inspectors to seize and destroy deadly chemical weapons in Syria as efforts to avert retaliatory U.S. missile strikes shift from Washington to the United Nations.

In a nationally televised address Tuesday night, Obama offered a rationale for greater U.S. intervention in a sectarian civil war that has dragged on for more than two years even while acknowledging that winning the hearts and minds of Americans to back another Mideast conflict remains a struggle.

The continued erosion of support in Congress for military strikes — and the resistance among the American people — underscored Obama's challenge. The president said he had asked congressional leaders to delay a vote on a resolution authorizing limited military strikes, a step that gives the Russian offer crucial time to work and avoids a potentially debilitating defeat for Obama, at least for the time being.

Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama recalled the use of deadly chemical weapons in the European trenches of World War I and the Nazi gas chambers of World War II in insisting that the international community could not stand by after an attack in the suburbs of Damascus last month the administration says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. The Obama administration blames the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," Obama said. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas" and using it.

The president said it was too early to say whether the Russian offer would succeed, and any agreement must ensure that the Syrian government was fulfilling its commitments.

However, the "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 president said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that he hoped the issue could be resolved diplomatically.

"It is in Syria's power to avoid U.S. military strikes, but that will require swift and decisive action on the part of the Assad regime to relinquish chemical weapons stockpiles to international control," Reid said in remarks on the Senate floor.

But Republican Sen. John McCain, an outspoken advocate of aggressive U.S. military intervention for months, said he was concerned that the Russian plan for securing Syria's chemical weapons could be a "rope-a-dope" delaying tactic, and "that the slaughter goes on."

McCain also said he worries that the cause of rebels fighting Assad has been obscured in the rapid-fire military and diplomatic events.

"I feel very badly for my friends in the Free Syrian Army today," McCain told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Wall Street Journal.

Obama said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday in Geneva, while he will continue talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Obama said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.

In the interim, the military will be ready, maintaining a credible pressure on Assad. Directly addressing criticism over his own vow of limited strikes, Obama said some lawmakers have said "there's no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria."

"Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn't do pinpricks," the president said. "Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."

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