Obama seeks diplomatic fix in Syria, but keeps military ready

President says too early to tell if Russian proposal will succeed, warns that inaction stakes American ideals, national security

President Barack Obama speaking in the White House in Washington, Tuesday, September 10, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama speaking in the White House in Washington, Tuesday, September 10, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Barack Obama said Tuesday night that he had asked Congress to hold off a vote on a military strike against the Assad regime while Washington pursues a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis in the UN Security Council. He emphasized, however, that the US military stood ready to carry out strikes against the Assad regime in response to its alleged chemical weapons use should diplomacy fail.

Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama acknowledged the weariness his nation felt after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “America is not the world’s policeman.” He promised that any military engagement in Syria would not become a drawn out war like those launched in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor would there be American soldiers on the ground in Syria or a prolonged air campaign like in Libya or Kosovo.

With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled to generate support among lawmakers — liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike — who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether US national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad’s military.

Events took another unexpected turn this week, with Russia and then Syria reacting positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from US Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said, adding that Moscow’s 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.”

The president said he was sending Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and added, “I will continue my own discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, he said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council “requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

Most of Obama’s speech was devoted to convincing the US public of the necessity of punitive action against Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons, which the president termed “a crime against humanity.” According to the Obama administration, the chemical attack Assad’s forces allegedly launched outside of Damascus on August 21 killed over 1,400 people, including 400 children.

“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until these horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied,” he said.

The president said firmly that Assad’s alleged attack was “not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

If diplomacy now falters and the United States fails to act, he said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons” and “other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using” it. Over time, he added, US troops could face the threat of chemical warfare, and if the fighting were to extend beyond Syria’s borders, “these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.”

Concerning Assad, Obama said that neither the Syrian president nor his allies were interested in taking actions that could lead to his demise, “and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.”

Quoting president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Obama said that “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” He emphasized that American “ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria.”

Obama said no one disputes that chemical weapons were used and said thousands of Syrians have died from them. He said the images and videos of men, women and children were sickening and demanded a response.

“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. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional,” he said.

Republican senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) responded to Obama’s speech shortly afterward, saying the president “did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army.”

“We also regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody,” the two senior senators said.

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