US President Barack Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – Despite the frantic pace of events over the past two days which has shifted the ground on the debate in Washington over whether to launch military strikes on the Assad regime in Syria, US President Barack Obama used his bully pulpit Tuesday to deliver an address to the nation that called for more time to let diplomacy work — but promised military action if it fails.
Obama didn’t offer a timetable on when the diplomatic track would be abandoned, leaving his administration maximum room to maneuver in its wrangling with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is trying to act as broker between the West and Assad.
The president said he asked Congress to postpone votes on Syria action to pursue a diplomatic solution at the United Nations but did not offer any new details about how the negotiations will proceed.
Much of the speech was spent explaining yet again to the American public that any military action against Syria would not involve US ground troops and the purpose of strikes would be limited to deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons while degrading his ability to use them again.
“I will not put boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said. “This would be a targeted strike” against specific military targets from the air.
Obama cautioned that just because the strikes would be limited, “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
Obama’s remarks capped another hectic and confusing day in the unfolding saga of Syrian chemical weapons stocks and the West’s efforts to garner international support for airstrikes.
Earlier in the day, the United States and France lobbied hard for a strict United Nations resolution that would ensure Assad’s regime turned over its chemical weapons stockpile to international inspectors. However, Moscow rejected that approach unless the West took the threat of military strikes off the table.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV on Tuesday that for the first time Syria was declaring it possessed chemical weapons and was willing to place them in the hands of representatives of Russia, “other countries” and the United Nations.
Obama said he is working with France and the UK “in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
Other than that remark, however, Obama barely mentioned Russia, which has been acting as a foil to American leadership on the Syria issue.
On Tuesday afternoon, Moscow reversed course and rejected any action by the UN Security Council that would have recourse to Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which sanctions military intervention to “restore international peace and security.”
Putin told reporters in Moscow that none of these diplomatic initiatives would come to anything unless “the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria. You can’t really ask Syria — or any other country — to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.”
On Capitol Hill, members — Democrats and Republicans — spent Monday and Tuesday calling for Obama to sell his war plans to Congress, the American people and the international community.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the president needed to lay out a plan for Syria that features “two tracks” which would “negotiate a solution that gets the chemical weapons out of Syria within a very short period of time,” while “Keep[ing] the threat of a military option alive.”
“The president was very clear” in luncheon remarks to Democrats, Carper said. “The threat of our willingness to actually use military option is critical if the Syrians and the Russians are going to following through in their deeds.”
The threat of US action must remain in play to ensure a disarmament plan for Syria is successful, Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday. “You have to have a realistic prospect of [military] force in order for the political settlement to be achievable.”
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., called Obama’s address “extremely important.”
American citizens are concerned about repeating the mistakes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Ruppersberger said.
The president needed to describe “what are the consequences if you allow this ... to be used without any accountability whatsoever,” Ruppersberger said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who co-wrote a force resolution being debated in the Senate, said prior to the national address on Monday that Obama did “not displayed what I hope we would have displayed relative to his commitment to a strategy.”
The Republican senator lamented, “I wish a lot of things with regard to Syria had been handled differently. ... What I do know is the president has to sell and to discuss, with passion, why this authorization is important, but he also has to give a clear picture on where we are going on Syria. And then we have to follow through on that.”
A House GOP aide said no matter what Obama said Tuesday evening, the American people realize he mishandled the Syria situation. The aide cited opinion polls showing public opposition to a Syria strike is steady at around 65 percent of those surveyed.
After the president spoke, Levin said, “I support [the president’s] diplomatic efforts to promptly bring Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, one of the world’s largest, under international control. I agree with the president that Syria and Russia would not have raised that possibility if not for the credible threat of military force.”
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released a joint statement Tuesday evening taking the president to task for failing to “speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army.”
The duo also called on the president to “immediately introduce a tough UN Security Council Resolution” that would spell out what the Assad regime would have to do do give up its chemical weapons.
One of the loudest voices for action in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry, will meet with the Russian foreign minister on Thursday in Geneva to continue talks.