President Obama and his Western allies faced off against Russia on the international stage Tuesday, battling over how exactly to force Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, even as the president pleaded with Congress to give him time to see the diplomatic efforts through.
In an address to the nation Tuesday night, Mr. Obama said he still favors a missile strike against Syria as punishment for a chemical weapons attack. But he said he wants to wait to for the international community to work its will.
“Over the last few days we’ve seen some encouraging signs,” Mr. Obama said in a televised address from the White House. “This initiative has the potential to remove chemical weapons without the use of force.”
The president again laid out the facts of Syria’s war atrocity and said the attack cannot go unpunished.
“The facts cannot be denied,” Mr. Obama said. “The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it.”
The president has changed his mind since Aug. 31, when he announced he wanted congressional approval to launch a limited military strike against Syria as punishment for a chemical-weapons attack ten days earlier that killed more than 1,400 people.
Early Tuesday the administration said it still wanted Congress to authorize strikes against Syria in order to strengthen the president’s negotiating hand. But by the afternoon Mr. Obama, meeting with senators, urged them to put off a vote rather than rush a resolution through that could be rejected by Congress, according to those in the closed-door meeting.
Lawmakers who were already inclined to support strikes said the threat of congressional action was critical to pushing Syria and Russia to the negotiating table, and said passing a resolution authorizing strikes could indeed bolster the president’s hand.
Those who have opposed strikes, however, said approving a war plan now could undercut the diplomatic efforts, which they said were far preferable to a unilateral strike that could leave the U.S. enmeshed in the two-year-old Syrian civil war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed that same message, telling the Russian television network RT that Mr. Obama must withdraw his threat of force against Damascus in order to complete an international deal.
“Certainly, this is all reasonable, it will function and will work out, only if the U.S. and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because it is difficult to make any country — Syria or any other country in the world — to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration,” Mr. Putin told RT.
Syrian officials, meanwhile, signaled they would be willing to accept the Russian proposal, which calls for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to turn its chemical weapons over to an international authority and to sign onto the international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. Syria is one of just five countries never to have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of chemical weapons.
France’s version would have included stiff penalties if the deal were broken, but the Russian government objected to that and was working on an alternative. The U.N. Security Council scheduled, then canceled, a meeting to talk about a path forward.
In Washington the State Department, which on Monday had distanced itself from the proposal, sought to take credit on Tuesday, insisting that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about it beforehand.