Facing overwhelming opposition from the public and fears in Congress that he lacks a sound military plan, President Obama backed away Monday night from his proposed missile strike against Syria and said he would pursue a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
On the brink of a televised address to the nation Tuesday night seeking to ease Americans’ worries that the country is headed for a repeat of the Iraq War, Mr. Obama seized the potential diplomatic solution and said a vote in Congress to authorize military action likely would be delayed beyond this week.
“We will pursue this diplomatic track,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. “I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way.”
The development arose when Secretary of State John F. Kerry, speaking in London on Monday, said offhandedly that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if the regime immediately gave up its chemical weapons stockpile. Mr. Kerry said there was no chance Syria would do so, but Russia quickly offered to broker such a deal, Syria welcomed the overture and it won the backing of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Mr. Obama said he would welcome a diplomatic solution but remained skeptical because Syria rejected such proposals in the past.
“It’s not enough just to trust; we’re going to have to verify,” Mr. Obama said, mimicking a line from Ronald Reagan in one of six TV interviews at the White House late Monday.
The president said he discussed the proposal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has blocked U.N. sanctions against Syria, during the Group of 20 summit in Russia last week. Mr. Obama took credit for the potential breakthrough, saying it would not have arisen without his threat of military force to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 civilians.
“These are conversations that I’ve had directly with Mr. Putin,” Mr. Obama said. “When I was at the G-20, we had some time to discuss this. I have to say that it’s unlikely we would’ve arrived at that point without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons inside of Syria. We’re going to run this to the ground. John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”
With the Senate calling off a scheduled Wednesday vote on a resolution that would authorize the use of force, Mr. Obama said he thinks it best to avoid congressional action “in the immediate future” as the potential deal with the Syrian government is explored.
“This is one of those situations where the stakes are high but they’re long-term. They’re not immediate, they’re not imminent, but they’re serious,” Mr. Obama said during an interview with ABC. “I don’t anticipate you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future. So I think there will be time during the course of the debates in the United States for the international community — the Russians and the Syrians — to work with us to see if there is a way to resolve this.”
The moves brought Mr. Obama full circle in his policy toward Syria, where he resisted military action for more than two years as the civil war killed more than 100,000 civilians. The president said Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” in which the U.S. would be forced to take more aggressive action.
But when evidence surfaced this spring that the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama said he would wait for the United Nations to verify it, while some lawmakers in Congress called for him to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
After the Aug. 21 attack, Mr. Obama said he wanted to launch a limited military strike to punish the regime. He said the international community could not allow a nation to get away with such an atrocity.