President Barack Obama on Tuesday backed away from plans to order an immediate military strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians while pursuing a Russian diplomatic initiative.
In a White House speech that originally had been aimed at mustering popular support for a limited cruise missile attack, Obama said he has asked leaders in Congress to delay a vote on whether to authorize the use of military force against the regime of Bashar al Assad.
Obama said it is “too early to tell” if Russia’s recent proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stocks under Russian and international controls will succeed. Any agreement must include provisions to verify the regime’s adherence to an accord eliminating its chemical arms, he said in a White House address.
“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 said.
“I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”
The president said he would continue discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and after talking to leaders in France and Britain he plans to present a U.N. Security Council resolution with Russian and China that would require Assad to give up, and destroy, his chemical arms.
A military strike also is on hold until U.N. inspectors report the findings of an investigation into the gas attack Aug. 21.
“Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” Obama said.
To conservatives, Obama asked those who support America’s military power to support his call for action and reconcile their views “with a failure to act when the cause is so plainly just.”
“To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough,” he said.
U.S. ideals and national security are at stake in Syria as well as U.S. global leadership, he said, noting that the United States “is not the world’s policeman.”
“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 said.
The president repeated earlier assertions that the regime of Bashar al Assad was responsible for using deadly sarin gas against civilians in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21 and as a result the United States must take action because the use of the arms violated international norms against their use.
A failure to act would embolden the regime to conduct further poison gas attacks and raise the specter that U.S. troops could be hit with the weapons in a future conflict.
“This is not a world we should accept,” he said.
The president said for those who say the United States should not become involved in Syria’s sectarian war, no troops will be deployed and it will not be an “open-ended action” involving a long air campaign as in Libya in 2011.
He denied the limited strike would be a “pin prick” military action with little impact.
“The United States military doesn’t do pin pricks,” Obama said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
The objective of the attack will not to be the removal of another dictator as occurred in Iraq, he said.
Earlier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff told Congress that U.S. missile and air strikes will be “militarily effective” in preventing the Syrian military from conducting further chemical weapons attacks and will also weaken Syrian forces.
“You know, we can’t prevent him from using chemical weapons again,” Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee.
“We’ve got a full range of options, but I will also say, importantly, the president has not yet given me the final decision on those target packages. We’ve got a
The president and his advisers are now studying a proposal from Russia to place Syria’s 1,000 tons of chemical weapons under Russian and international controls.
Reports from Damascus indicate the Syrian government will accept the offer.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moualem told NBC news that his government would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and agree to dismantle its chemical arms. U.S. officials have said the weapons include large stockpiles of the blistering agent mustard and nerve agents VX and sarin.
Putin said the disarmament plan would only work if the United States renounces plans to use military force. “You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated,” Putin said, according to state-run press reports.
Secretary of State John Kerry, appearing with Dempsey, told the House committee that putting Syrian chemical weapons under international controls would be the ultimate way to deter and degrade Assad’s arsenal.
Kerry left for Geneva Tuesday night for talks with Russian officials on the disarmament plan.
However, Kerry said the Russian proposal cannot be “a process of avoidance” and “it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable.”
“But we’re waiting for that proposal, but we’re not waiting for long,” he said. Kerry said he hopes Congress ultimately will approve a resolution on the use of force as a way to back up diplomatic efforts.
Kerry was asked to explain recent comments that the planned military operation would be “incredibly small.”
“I have said this will be meaningful, it will be serious; the Assad regime will feel it because it will degrade their military capacity,” Kerry said. “But compared to Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, it’s small. It is not any of those things.”
None of the members of Congress questioned Kerry, Dempsey, or Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during the hearing about whether the Russian proposal would bolster Assad’s hold on power.
The Obama administration has sent mixed signals about the goals of its Syria policy, stating that Assad must step down but also stating that the United States would not seek “regime change” in Damascus.
Kerry testified that the end goal in Syria is a “political solution.” Earlier, the administration announced it would covertly arm and train rebels to overthrow the Assad regime.
Dempsey said the United States could deter and weaken the Syrian military with its attacks, which he described to the committee as “stand-off” strikes, defined as “outside the ability of the Syrian regime to threaten us.”
Dempsey testified that he was tasked by the president to “plan for a militarily significant strike.”
“We can deter, and we can degrade,” he said. “Deter is changing his calculus about the cost of using them again, and degrade is literally taking away some of the capabilities, but not all, that he would use to deliver them.”
Dempsey also said that there’s a risk that some of Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of extremist groups but that “the indications are today that it does remain under the firm control of the regime.”
Chemical arms in Syria are delivered with what Dempsey said were “improvised short-range rockets.”
A number of “target packages” for strikes include military command and control and “the decision-making apparatus,” as well as forces used by the regime for protection.
Dempsey sought to play down the risk of retaliation when asked if Russia and Iran would intervene to attack U.S. forces in the event of a U.S. military strike on Syria.
“Specifically, you’re asking about Russia and Iran,” Dempsey said. “And we assess that the risk of retaliation, because of the limited nature of the strike, is low. I can’t drive it to zero, and I can tell you that we are postured in the region in order to deal with any miscalculation or retaliation.”
Dempsey also said he was ordered to plan attack so that the risk of civilian casualties remained low.
On questions about Russian resupply of arms and military equipment to Syria after a U.S. strike, Dempsey said it is possible.
The four-star general, the president’s senior military adviser, also said Russia’s fleet in the eastern Mediterranean include “mostly amphibs and intel ships.”
Dempsey said that because of the Syria conflict and the anniversary Wednesday of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, U.S. forces are on higher alert and readiness status in the region.