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President Barack Obama warned late Tuesday that America’s military will be ready to strike Syria if a Russian-backed diplomatic plan to secure and destroy Bashar Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons fails.
“I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” Obama said in a formal address to the nation from the White House.
But Obama, making the case for the latest dizzying spin of his muddled and unpopular Syria policy, did not set a time frame for Moscow’s approach to succeed.
“The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” he said. “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that Assad keeps its commitments.”
“But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force,” he said.
“I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path,” he said.
The president said he had spoken to French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Thursday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
The United States, Britain and France will work with Russia and China — which have vetoed U.N. Security Council action on Syria — to craft a resolution “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
Amid concerns that Assad could emerge strengthened from the standoff with the United States, Obama did not restate his longstanding policy that the Syrian leader cannot stay in power. Instead, he repeated his observation that “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”
“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next,” he said."We cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force."
But he signaled for the first time that any Syrian counter-punch after American strikes could cost Assad his life.
“Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise,” Obama warned.
The president’s speech amounted to his second dramatic about-face on the international stage with regard to Syria. Only 10 days ago, in the Rose Garden, he shocked the world by impatiently challenging Congress to back him up on his decision to go to war with Syria.
On Tuesday, Obama earnestly announced that he was pursuing a diplomatic option and pleaded with Congress not to screw it up by voting on (and defeating) his request to use military force.
In both cases, Obama disguised the fact that he was boxed in by circumstances, many of his own making.
The decision to go to Congress came after it became clear that the U.N. Security Council would not give him the international legal legitimacy for a strike, key allies such as Britain would not unite in a kind of coalition of the willing that would let him claim legitimacy, and the American people signaled in poll after poll that they would not lend their support. The resulting crisis in credibility — Obama had declared in August 2012 that the use of chemical weapons crossed a “red line” — led the president to try to enlist Congress.
The decision to give the Russian proposal a whirl came after it became clear that Congress would reject his request for authorization to use military force, leaving him to shoulder the full burden — and consequences — for action alone.
Washington, which accuses Assad's forces of slaughtering more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of children, in a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, has been keen to highlight slow but undeniably steady support from the international community for a strong response.
Obama spent much of his speech trying to answer the chief criticisms of Americans opposed to military strikes — a number that has grown, even after witnessing the horrors of the apparent nerve gas attack in social media videos and photographs. The president directed wavering Americans to view that footage, including “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”
He promised again not to put "boots on the ground" in Syria (a prospect that Kerry envisioned if Assad's chemical weapons risk falling into the hands of extremists), "pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan" or "pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." He insisted that any actions would require "modest effort and risk."
He allowed that some elements of the rebels fighting to topple Assad were extremists but warned "al Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria."
And he challenged Congress to rise — when called — to the burden of approving military force.
"To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," he said. "To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough."
He insisted again that inaction would pose “a danger to our security” — arguably the heaviest lift of the speech given profound skepticism in Congress and the public — but allowed Syria did not pose “a direct or imminent threat to our security.”
Instead, he said, reprising an argument he and top aides have wielded to little effect for weeks: Failure to uphold international curbs on chemical weapons will embolden “tyrants” to use them, and “it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.”
And Iran “which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” might choose the road to confrontation, he said.
Obama’s 15-minute speech came amid a frenzy of diplomacy and behind-the-scenes intrigue, bordering on chaos:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted America needed to take the threat of force off the table in order to secure Syrian compliance.
- France was drafting a strongly worded U.N. Security Council resolution warning Syria to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international control or face “extremely serious consequences.”
- The United Nations Security Council envisioned, then postponed, a meeting.
- Russia planned to send the United States proposals for U.N. action, apparently eager to avoid a binding resolution implicitly carrying the threat of force.
- Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington needs “a full resolution from the Security Council in order to have confidence that this has the force that it has to have.”
- Syria said it would declare its chemical weapons arsenal and hoped to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty forbidding countries from stockpiling those weapons of mass destruction.