WASHINGTON – President Obama on Monday called a Russian proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control "a potentially significant breakthrough," but said he isn't giving up his efforts to build support for possible military action in response to the alleged nerve gas attack last month.
“I think what we're seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world, has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move,” Obama said in an interview with NBC News. “And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate over the last couple of years.”
Obama's remarks came in a round of interviews with six network and cable journalists as he prepares to address senators at the Capitol and make his pitch to Americans in an evening address Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) delayed an initial vote on a resolution to authorize force against Syria, saying he wanted to give Obama more time to make his case to the country.
Reid's announcement marked a sudden reversal, just four hours after he had said that senators would cast their first procedural votes on the resolution Wednesday. Reid said he made the decision in consultation with Obama. "I don't think we need to see how fast we can do this. We have to see how well we can do this," he said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Reid denied that his decision was an indication that there were not 60 votes to cut off debate. "What we need to do is make sure the president has the opportunity to speak to all 100 senators and all 300 million American people before we do this," he said.
While Obama and his team were working on his appeal to the Senate and Americans on Monday, the Russian foreign minister publicly suggested that Syria turn over control of its chemical weapons to international authorities. Syrian officials reportedly responded warmly to the idea.
On its face, the solution seemed a convenient and timely solution for all sides. Syria has little defense against a U.S. attack, while Obama is having a hard time rounding up the votes in Congress to authorize military action.
But White House officials estimated that such a deal would take days and weeks to pull off because it would involve getting inspectors into the country, finding the chemical weapons and then dealing with a stockpile that the government of President Bashar Assad hasn't even acknowledged in the past.
Emissaries for the president are telling lawmakers that they don't know the details of the Russian plan and doubt that it would come to fruition if the military threat were to evaporate.
Speaking to PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, Obama said he talked about the idea of international control of the chemical weapons when officials met in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week at the Group of 20 summit.
He said he has now sent Secretary of State John F. Kerry to talk with the Russian architects of the idea in greater details. Obama said he’s "all for it" if officials can come up with a "verifiable, enforceable mechanism" to deal with the weapons.
"But we're going to have to see specifics," Obama told Ifill.
Obama made it clear in several interviews that he is still working to build support for military strikes. "I think it is important for us not to let the pedal off the metal when it comes to making sure they understand we mean what we say," Obama said on Fox News.
Twitter: @mikememoliCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times