WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, facing tough opposition to a strike against Syria in Congress and throughout the country, told the nation Tuesday he is exploring a Russian diplomatic plan to end a chemical weapons dispute in Syria, but reserves the right to take military action if necessary.
In a speech that only 48 hours ago was going to be solely a call to arms, Obama instead offered a qualified endorsement of the plan that his own advisers said full of problems and difficult to implement.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said during a White House address, but it is worth pursuing because of “the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
During his nationally televised speech from the White House, Obama also said:
• He wanted to talk to the country “about Syria, why it matters and where we go from here.”
• He resisted any intervention in Syria’s civil war for months until Assad’s government used chemical weapons against anti-government rebels on Aug 21, killing numerous children.
• Use of these banned weapons increase the possibility of other chemical attacks in other parts of the world, perhaps even the United States.
• A lack of action would erode prohibitions on other weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
• “I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular;” but any action in Syria would be specifically targeted on its chemical weapons programmes.
• Syria does not have the ability to retaliate against the United States.
• He is encouraged by Russia’s proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, but added: “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.”
• Americans should review videos of the Aug 21 chemical weapons attack now posted on the White House website, particularly the pictures of dead and dying children.
“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
Obama’s speech capped a flurry of diplomatic activity, as American, British and French officials spoke with Russian counterparts about their idea to have Syria turn over their chemical weapons to international control for dismantling. So far, they are at odds on the details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would only support a Syrian turnover if the Obama administration renounced the possible use of force against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Obama declined to do that. In meetings with US senators on Tuesday, and during his prime time speech, Obama said it’s the potential for force that pressured Syria into negotiations about releasing its chemical weapons stockpile.
For President Obama, the 16-minute address from the East Room was a frank acknowledgment of how radically the political and diplomatic landscape had shifted in just a few days. With officials on Capitol Hill, at the United Nations and in foreign capitals flocking to embrace Russia’s plan as an alternative to force, Obama found himself struggling to redefine the terms of the debate.
His speech capped a day of rapid-fire developments as the United Nations Security Council scheduled and then canceled a meeting, Syria embraced the Russian proposal, and Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for two days of negotiations with his Russian counterpart.
Even in the face of widespread opposition, Obama made an impassioned case for a retaliatory strike, saying in starkly emotional terms that President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons could not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, envoys from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - were to meet in New York Wednesday afternoon to try an evolve an acceptable resolution that would have Syria place its chemical weapons under international control, according to diplomatic sources.
They are meeting to try and overcome an impasse over a draft resolution presented by France on Tuesday over which Russia, an ally of Syria, raised strong objections. Consequently, a scheduled meeting of the Security Council was cancelled.
Wednesday’s meeting comes a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Geneva in an attempt to break the deadlock on the 15-nation Security Council over Syria.
Russia rejected France’s initial demand for muscular wording aimed at forcing Syria to hand over the weapons on a deadline and under the threat of force. Moscow canceled a meeting it had called at the Security Council and set the stage for a possible diplomatic standoff.
At issue was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s assertion that France’s proposal would invoke Chapter 7, a clause that allows UN member states to use all possible means, including military action, to enforce a resolution.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry rejected the proposal because of the Chapter 7 reference, as well as the suggestion that the resolution would blame the Syrian government for deploying chemical weapons.
Russia, which wields veto power on the Security Council, has blocked previous efforts to pass resolutions aimed at punishing the Assad regime.
Agencies add: Moscow reportedly presented Washington with its plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons. “We handed over to the Americans a plan to place chemical weapons in Syria under international control. We expect to discuss it in Geneva,” the BBC quoted a Russian source.
“Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons network comprises remote underground bunkers where hundreds of tons of nerve agents are stored, scud missiles and artillery shells, possibly armed with cyanide, and factories deep inside hostile territory used to produce mustard or VX gas, experts believe,” Reuters reported.
According to Dieter Rothbacher, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, at least 75,000 ground troops are needed to secure Syria’s massive chemical stockpile.