WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama asked Congress on Tuesday to postpone a vote on airstrikes against Syria to allow time to explore a Russian proposal to get Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.
Obama made the dramatic last-minute turnaround in closed-door meetings with members of Congress and then in a prime-time address to the nation, even as he was dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart later this week. Their goal: a binding resolution in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia had threatened to veto any move against its ally in Syria.
“Over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action,” Obama said in a 15-minute address from the White House. “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed … but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
As the United States stepped back from the thorny debate over whether to strike, Syria said it was already agreeing to the Russian proposal to surrender its chemical weapons and adhere to a longstanding global arms control agreement that bans the production, stockpiling and use of such weapons. “We are ready to honor our commitments under this convention, including providing information about these weapons,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem said in Moscow.
Obama, as well as the leaders of France and Britain, agreed to work with Russia and China to explore the proposal that would call for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. France said it would propose a resolution that would include a requirement that those responsible for an Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb be referred to the International Criminal Court for trial.
Obama worked anew to try to rally support from a skeptical nation for military action against Syria, even if that is now more to prod a deal than an imminent threat. He said that U.S. armed forces would remain on standby, ready to strike if necessary.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” he said. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, 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.”
He added, “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.”
Earlier Tuesday, Obama told Democratic and Republican senators in separate closed-door meetings that they should postpone any vote on the use of force until negotiations with Russia and Syria are exhausted. He did not lay out a timetable in his conversations with lawmakers or in his address.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already had postponed a Wednesday vote in the Senate as an increasing number of lawmakers expressed opposition to the use-of-force proposal and support for diplomatic negotiations. But Reid said Tuesday that the U.S. should not withdraw possible military intervention — which he said led to Syria’s willingness to negotiate — especially given Syria’s “extremely low level of credibility.”
The day’s events were a sharp change from Monday, when the Obama administration had been pressing forward with an aggressive lobbying campaign to persuade lawmakers and the American people to back a proposal to use military force in Syria despite pending negotiations with Russia on its proposals.
“The diplomatic door has opened ever so slightly, and while I have doubts about this eleventh-hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after Obama’s speech. “A negotiated solution to a crisis is always preferable and if this possibility is legitimate, I’ll give it serious thought. At the same time, the credible use of military force is necessary to keep on the table.”
“I appreciate the complicated issues the president faces,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa. “Still, I don’t think the case for military action has been made. … Military action should be the last resort, so this diplomatic offer, if credible and enforceable, needs to be considered.”
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Kerry said “we’re waiting” on the Russian proposal, “but we’re not waiting long.”
“The president believes we need to keep this threat, this reality, absolutely on the table,” he said. “He wants the Congress to act.”
The White House announced Tuesday that more countries signed a statement on the need to reinforce the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Thirty-three nations now support the statement. The statement does not endorse military action against Syria.
Chinese reaction to the developments was also favorable. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said in Beijing that the proposal “can help ease the current tension in Syria, solve the Syrian issue politically and safeguard the peace and stability of Syria and the whole region.”
France, the only country that had said it would join the United States in a military strike on Syria, said it would support the Russian proposal. But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attached three conditions: that Assad agree to place his entire chemical weapons arsenal under international control and allow it to be destroyed, that the operation be conducted quickly under a binding U.N. resolution, and that those responsible for the attacks be referred to the International Criminal Court.