Obama: Strikes ‘absolutely’ on hold if Syria quits chemical arms

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
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Protesters against U.S. military action in Syria march to Capitol Hill from the White House in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. The march was organized by the ANSWER Coalition. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Protests over American involvement with Syria

President Barack Obama said Monday that he will “absolutely” hold off on striking Syria if President Bashar Assad puts his chemical weapons arsenals under international control in line with a Russia-backed proposal.

In a series of six television interviews, Obama also said he was not “confident” of getting congressional authorization to use force and had not decided whether to go ahead with attacking Syria if he doesn’t. But he warned that “the U.S. does not do pinpricks.”

The president’s unprecedented public relations blitz came as public opinion polls showed that a solid majority of Americans oppose going to war with Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces on Aug. 21. The United States says it is sure the regime carried out that assault and that it left about 1,400 dead, including several hundred children.

In addition to interviews with ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and PBS, Obama was to deliver a prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday night.

On ABC, Obama pledged to hold off on attacking if Assad and Syria’s patron Russia prove they are serious about taking steps to put the regime’s chemical weapons under international control in an “enforceable and verifiable” way. The notion was first floated by Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Monday, and quickly seized on by Russia, a long-time patron of Syria, as a way to defuse the threat of American military action.

Obama, standing on the threshold of one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, told NBC that the Russian-backed proposal could turn out to be “a significant breakthrough” — or a bust.

“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” he said. The Moscow-backed proposal only came about because of the “credible threat of a military strike from the United States” that forced Russia and Syria to consider such a dramatic step.

“This could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate over the last couple a years,” he said.

Obama, speaking hours after Kerry promised “unbelievably small” strikes, underlined that “our military is the greatest the world has ever known” and that any attack would be limited but effective.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said.

Asked whether he would go to war with Syria even if Congress votes against giving him authorization to do so, Obama told NBC: “I haven’t decided.”

“I read polls like everybody else,” he said. Unleashing America’s military absent a direct, imminent threat to the United States and without Congressional backing, he said, is “not the kind of precedent I want to set.”

Obama noted the outreach to skeptical lawmakers as well as his appeals to the public, culminating in a prime-time speech to the nation on Tuesday night.

“And I'll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we're willing to move forward,” the president said.

So is he confident that Congress will give him the authority?

“I wouldn't say I'm confident,” Obama replied. “I'm confident that the members of Congress are taking this issue very seriously and they're doing their homework, and I appreciate that.”

When CBS pointed out that the public did not support his approach, Obama replied: “Yeah, well, not yet.”