WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he will seize one last diplomatic opening to avoid military strikes on Syria but made a forceful case for why the United States must retaliate for that nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons if the effort fails.
In a nationally televised address, Obama cautiously welcomed a Russian proposal that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad give up its stockpile of chemical weapons, signaling that he would drop his call for a military assault on the regime if Assad complies.
But with little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama argued that the nation must be prepared to strike Syria. Facing a skeptical public and Congress, the war-weary president said the United States carries the burden of using its military power to punish regimes that would flout long-held conventions banning the use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons, Obama said. The purpose of a strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make clear to the world we will not tolerate their use. But he added that he has a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions as he pledged to work with international partners to negotiate with Russia over a United Nations resolution on a Syria solution.
The speech was a plea from a president who, defying public opinion, has pushed the United States toward using force in Syria – and staked his and the nation’s credibility on whether he can get Congress to support him. But it also followed two days of intense political and diplomatic negotiations on Capitol Hill and abroad that appear to have shifted his calculus for how quickly to move forward with direct intervention.
Obama pledged that before pursuing military options, his administration would explore a surprise offer from Russia on Monday to persuade Assad to surrender his chemical weapons to United Nations inspectors.
The president had visited Congress in the afternoon, asking senators in both parties to delay a vote on a resolution that would authorize him to order strikes on Syrian government targets in retaliation for the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 that reportedly killed more than 1,400 Syrians near Damascus.
A White House official said Obama spent an hour apiece with the Democratic and Republican caucuses, reviewing evidence of the attack and reiterating his decision to pursue a limited, targeted military strike that would not involve U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.
But the president also told lawmakers that he would spend the days ahead pursuing this diplomatic option with the Russians and our allies at the United Nations, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The proposal appeared to be gaining traction Tuesday, as Syria embraced it and China and Iran voiced support. But a telephone conversation between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, revealed a deep divide over their visions of the U.N. Security Council’s role – and particularly over the prospect of military action to ensure that an agreement would be honored.
There also were doubts about how Syria’s stockpiles could be transferred to international monitors amid a protracted civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The call took place after France said it would draft a Security Council resolution to put the Russian proposal into effect.
The Russian offer could serve as a potential escape hatch for a president who has at times appeared reluctant to pursue military force, even after saying he believed it was the right course to reinforce a red line against chemical weapons.
Obama has struggled to build an international coalition for such action.
And with congressional and public support for a U.S. strike dwindling rapidly over the past week, Obama’s request to delay the Senate vote bought him time to try to convince the public that the White House is pursuing a viable and coherent strategy despite a muddled message since the alleged attack.