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 United Nations 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 11th-hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration,” Sen. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman 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.”
Whether Obama’s request for Congress to approve a strike would come to a vote was unclear, however. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Senate would keep the option of voting for military action, though not this week as originally thought.
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.
Moallem made it clear that the threat of what he called “American aggression” had motivated his country to quickly pledge to surrender its chemical weapons and agree to the Chemical Weapons Convention – an arms control agreement outlawing the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Most countries had signed onto the convention, but Syria never had.
According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Moallem praised “the wisdom of Russian leadership” for the offer, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made after Kerry said Syria could avoid a military strike by handing over its chemical weapons to an international body for destruction.
Moallem said that after “fruitful talks” Monday, Syria had decided to accept the offer Monday night.
“Syria welcomes Russia’s initiative, which is based on Russian concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country,” the news agency quoted him as saying. He said Syrian acceptance was based both on Russian advice and “to avert American aggression against our nation.”
After weeks of discord with the Obama administration, Lavrov was quick to praise the U.S. role in brokering and backing the deal. Before the Syrians agreed to the proposal, Lavrov made it clear it was an international deal, with U.S. input. He also said the end product should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council.
“This issue requires the return of the international investigators to their work on the Syrian ground to investigate the chemical weapons use,” Lavrov said. “The truth must be revealed and the criminals responsible for using these weapons must be brought to justice.”
Russia has accused Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons in an attack on Khan al Asal, outside Aleppo, in March. The Russians submitted a 100-page report on the incident to the U.N. in July.
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.
There were skeptics. Avigdor Lieberman, who chairs the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Syria could use the proposal to “buy time,” adding that Assad “is winning time and lots of it.”
President Shimon Peres warned Monday that negotiations over a weapons transfer would be tough and that Syria is “not trustworthy.”
There was no detail on how the destruction of Syria’s weapons stores would be carried out. In a statement, Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that oversees compliance with the ban on chemical weapons, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “is considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed, and has again urged that Syria should join the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Whether that would require U.N. inspectors to visit each of the estimated 49 locations where Syria is thought to have stored the weapons or whether they might be moved to a central location away from the fighting, such as the Russian military base at Tartus, Syria, was unknown.
Destruction of the weapons would be a daunting task. A French intelligence summary made public last week said Syria had more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin and VX, a neurotoxin that’s considered the most potent chemical weapons in the world.
The United States is still storing tons of sarin and VX at its Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County, Ky. Both are scheduled to be destroyed at a massive plant that’s 72 percent complete. The plant is supposed to be finished in 2015, but it will take until 2020 for it to become operational.
According to the current timeline, it will take from 2020 to 2023 to destroy the weapons, said Craig Williams, the director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a citizens group that monitors the remaining weapons in Kentucky and Pueblo, Colo.
Contributing to this report were David Lightman in Washington, Greg Kocher, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, in Lexington, Ky., and McClatchy special correspondents Mel Frykberg in Jerusalem and Mitchell Prothero in Beirut.