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Obama gives Syria one last option

Staff and Wire Reports
September 10. 2013 10:50PM
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington Tuesday night. (REUTERS/Evan Vucci/POOL)

President Barack Obama vowed to pursue a diplomatic initiative from Russia over Syria's chemical weapons on Tuesday, but voiced skepticism about it and urged Americans to support his threat to use military force. Obama said in a White House speech that a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to place chemical weapons under international control offered the possibility of heading off the type of limited military strike he is considering against Syria.

Obama said in a White House speech that a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to place chemical weapons under international control offered the possibility of heading off the type of limited military strike he is considering against Syria.

Speaking from the White House's East Room, Obama said U.S. and Russian officials would keep talking about the initiative and that he would discuss it with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, he said, he has asked the Senate to put off a vote on his request for an authorization of military force to let the diplomacy play out. He set no timetables for action, but said any deal with Assad would require verification that he keep his word.

"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. 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."

The Russian offer put the brakes on a vote in Congress over authorizing military force as lawmakers and the administration sought more time to assess Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.Obama used much of his speech to lay out the case against Syria, saying there was plenty of evidence showing that the Syrian government was behind a chemical weapons attack last month that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.

He argued that Syria should face consequences for using such weapons because much of the world has long since adopted a ban on chemical weapons and that if the civilized world does nothing to respond, it will only embolden U.S. adversaries.

"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," said Obama.A group of Republican and Democratic senators began drafting a modified resolution on the use of military force that would give the United Nations time to take control of Syria's chemical weapons.

NH delegation reacts

New Hampshire's Sen. Jeanne Shaheen released a statement after Obama's speech.

"Syria's use of chemical weapons is a serious threat to our national security and I am hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be reached to secure and destroy their chemical weapons stockpile," the Democrat said. "I'm working with my colleagues in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on an amendment to give diplomacy a chance to work, but to also pressure the Syrians to take concrete steps towards the transfer of their chemical weapons to international control.

"I continue to believe that the eventual elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles is in our best interest but also understand that it was the threat of force that ultimately pushed Syria and Russia to the negotiating table. Now, we need immediate, serious and credible action from Russia and Syria. They must begin to secure and eventually destroy Syria's weapons of mass destruction as soon as possible."

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said she will continue to ask tough questions "to ensure that we're acting in the best interests of our national security."

"Tonight he (Obama) delayed the request for a congressional vote, and although I am skeptical of Putin and Assad's credibility and the ability of the UN to execute this type of outcome, if we're successful in getting the Assad regime to turn over its chemical weapons to the international community with appropriate verification, that would make the world safer," she said in a statement.

Last week, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, announced that she opposed U.S. military involvement in Syria.

She issued this statement Tuesday night: "I share President Obama's horror at the use of chemical weapons on innocent people, but I do not share his belief that military air strikes are the answer to the crisis in Syria.

"I remain concerned that a military strike could lead to more chaos and regional instability. And I still do not believe that the tragedy in Syria represents an imminent threat to our national security."

Shea-Porter concluded: "I applaud the President for pursuing a diplomatic solution to this crisis before taking military action, and I continue to be optimistic that this situation can be resolved through a negotiated political agreement. I stand with President Obama in calling on Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, cease production of chemical weapons, and begin turning over its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community immediately."

Congresswoman Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said the Assad regime must be held accountable, but she "continued to have very grave concerns about the unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention in the region."

"We should aggressively pursue a diplomatic solution that will lead to the containment and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles," Kuster said in a written statement. "I am pleased that the President shares that view, and am hopeful that a diplomatic resolution can be reached in the near future. As the situation continues to evolve, I will closely monitor new developments and maintain an open dialogue with my constituents."

Postponing vote

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 long-standing 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 spoke to his French and British counterparts and "they agreed to work closely together, and in consultation with Russia and China, to explore seriously the viability of the Russian proposal," which would ensure the "verifiable and enforceable destruction" of Syria's chemical weapons, according to a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.

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.

Before his Tuesday night address to the American people, 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.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., already had postponed a Wednesday vote in the Senate as an increasing number of senators 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 to back a proposal to use military force in Syria.

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