President Obama said Tuesday from the White House, “When dictators commit atrocities they depend upon the world to look away.”
Evan Vucci • New York Times,
Syrian demonstrators on Monday carried an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a protest outside the White House against U.S. military action. The United Nations and foreign capitals flcoked to endorse a Russian proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons.
Jose Luis Magana • Associated Press,
Secretary of State John Kerry paused on Capitol Hill on Tuesday while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee hearing. “We need a full resolution,” he said.
Jacquelyn Martin • AP,
President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool) ORG XMIT: MIN2013091020260083
Obama backs diplomacy on Syria
- Article by: MARK LANDLER and JONATHAN WEISMAN
- New York Times
- September 10, 2013 - 11:42 PM
WASHINGTON – President Obama, facing an almost certain defeat in obtaining congressional support for a military strike against Syria, made the case for that strike to the nation Tuesday night but said he would give serious consideration to a proposal by Russia that international monitors take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitment,” Obama said, “but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.”
Obama, in a speech delivered at the White House, said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while he pursued what he described as “this diplomatic path,” even while making the moral case for punishing Syria for its deadly use of chemical weapons.
“When dictators commit atrocities they depend upon the world to look away until those horrifying pictures fade from memory,” he said. “But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question is now what is the United States and the international community prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law but a threat to our security.”
But in a speech that only 48 hours ago was going to be a call to arms, Obama offered a qualified endorsement of a Russian proposal that his own advisers conceded was rife with risk, given Russia’s steadfast refusal to agree to any previous measures to pressure its longtime client in Syria. And his speech was a frank acknowledgment of how radically the political and diplomatic landscape had shifted in just a few days.
On Capitol Hill, at the United Nations and in foreign capitals, officials flocked to endorse Russia’s proposal as an alternative to involving the United States in the 2½-year-old civil war in Syria. The proposal also won the backing of the Syrian government: The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that Syria would turn over its chemical weapons arsenal to Russia, the United Nations and “other countries” — a startling concession, given that as recently as this week Assad has disputed that Syria even possessed chemical weapons.
Doubts about the plan
Still, administration officials, lawmakers and diplomats all expressed doubts about the Russian plan. Some said it would allow Syria to play for time and was calculated to undermine the drive for congressional and international support for a strike. Others said the idea of securing chemical weapons stockpiles in the midst of a brutal civil war was fanciful.
Moreover, the diplomatic efforts — which began after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced his proposal Monday — quickly ran into trouble. A meeting of the U.N. Security Council was canceled Tuesday afternoon after Russia clashed with the United States and France over whether to make its proposal binding and back it up with the threat of force.
“We need a full resolution from the Security Council to have the confidence that this has the force it ought to have,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a social media interview sponsored by Google. “Right now the Russians are in a slightly different place on that.”
Kerry and Lavrov will meet in Geneva on Thursday to work out these disagreements. Before Russia made its announcement, Kerry expressed blunt skepticism that Syria could be trusted to turn over its stockpile, which is dispersed in multiple locations around the country. In testimony to Congress on Tuesday, he described the Obama administration’s position on the Russian plan. “It has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee. “It cannot be a delaying tactic.”
Obama’s decision to work through the Security Council is itself a shift, given that 10 days ago he described it as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.” But administration officials said they were swayed by the level of detail in the Russian proposal, which grew out of an impromptu conversation between Obama and President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a summit in Russia last week.
“The Lavrov statement was quite comprehensive,” a senior administration official said. “Frankly, it exceeded expectations in the level of detail it went into.”
On Capitol Hill, where opposition to a strike was hardening, senators emerged from lunchtime meetings with Obama optimistic that Congress could shift from a resolution authorizing force to one that would give diplomacy more time.
The president impressed on them the need to keep the pressure on Syria and Russia, but expressed support for a delay in any vote until the Security Council makes clear what it plans to do.
“I didn’t see any anxiety on the part of the president for an immediate need for action,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
While the House was considered the major obstacle for Obama in seeking approval for a strike, a shift in the Senate began taking shape before the Russian proposal Monday, when it became clear that the straightforward resolution authorizing force the president had sought was highly unlikely to pass there either. Only a handful of Republicans were yes votes, and at least 15 Democrats were likely to vote no.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the strongest supporters of a strike, contacted a fellow Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, on Saturday to try to put together a new negotiating group.
On Monday, McCain and Graham brought in two senior Democratic senators, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat.
Levin stressed Tuesday that the alternative resolution developed by the group would authorize a military strike, but set aside that authority if Assad placed his chemical weapons under the control of the United Nations, as Russia has proposed.
© 2013 Star Tribune