WASHINGTON — President Obama suspended his drive to win congressional authorization for punitive military strikes against Syria on Tuesday, as his administration and U.S. allies began the diplomatic haggling with Russia that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
In a rare prime-time address from the White House, Obama declared that he saw “encouraging signs” in negotiations sparked by an unexpected Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control. But the president also counseled caution, and argued that the U.S. must maintain the threat of an attack to put pressure on the Syrian government.
In vivid language, Obama charged that President Bashar Assad’s government “gassed to death” more than a thousand people in Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21.
“What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” Obama said in remarks delivered from the East Room. “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”
Obama’s 16-minute speech presented a dual challenge for the president: building public support for his decision to launch military strikes while also explaining his eleventh-hour decision to shift gears.
Diplomats in Paris, Damascus, Moscow and Washington worked through the details of the Russian proposal — running into early signs of difficulty. Secretary of State John F. Kerry plans to travel to Geneva on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said in his speech, “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.”
In meetings earlier in the day with senators on Capitol Hill, Obama asked for time to sort through the options. Senate leaders, in a sign of the deep reluctance to endorse the president’s push for another military intervention, readily complied.
Obama’s speech originally had been intended as the keynote of a week of meetings, briefings, speeches and phone calls aimed at lawmakers whose support Obama would need to win a vote on the use of force against Syria. But the Russian proposal dramatically changed the context.
The speech was rewritten until late in the day Tuesday as the president and his aides wrestled with how to present a case for going forward even as they were asking Congress to pause.
With polls showing Americans opposed to a strike by roughly a 2-1 ratio, the White House sought to persuade lawmakers to buck public opinion and back Obama on a vote some say could determine the future of his presidency and U.S. credibility abroad.
In his remarks Tuesday, Obama acknowledged that a war-weary public was unlikely to support another conflict. But he argued it was a moral responsibility and matter of national security. The president stressed that unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military action would be limited — but answered lawmakers who have wondered if a “pinprick” strike would make any difference.
“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks,” Obama said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
In a joint statement after the speech, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two of the most prominent backers of a military strike, said they “regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal.”
Freshman Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), an enthusiastic backer of Obama in the 2008 primaries, said she continued “to have very grave concerns about the unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention.”
Congressional resistance to entering another conflict seemed to firm up with the sudden appearance of the Russian proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indefinitely postponed an initial vote on an authorization resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee last week. He said he would be satisfied with a diplomatic solution. “I’m not a blood-and-thunder guy. I’m not for shock and awe,” he said.
Meanwhile, key senators are sketching the outline of an amended resolution. It would require the United Nations to pass a resolution to remove all chemical weapons in Syria by a defined date. If that failed, the use of force would be authorized, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Sticking points remain, including how much time would be allowed for removal of the weapons stockpiles and the scope of force Congress would authorize, the source said.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the goal was to eliminate the threat of Syria using chemical weapons by keeping open the possibility of force, “like the sword of Damocles over Assad.”
“It’s because of the threat of a strike by the president, because of the possibility that Congress would authorize it, that there’s movement at the U.N.,” Levin said.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader, said Obama “was not overly optimistic” about the diplomatic channel.
“What he’s basically asked is for some time to work this out,” Durbin said, a time frame that would delay any action until next week. “I think that’s reasonable.”
The European Union, wary of military action, warmed to the Russian proposal, as its top diplomat urged quick work on verification and destruction of the arsenal. Support from the EU, with its 28 member nations, added to the diplomatic momentum.
Obama, along with his French and British counterparts, agreed Tuesday to explore the proposal with Russia and China, which have used their veto power on the U.N. Security Council to block previous punitive measures against Assad’s government.
But Obama and his allies almost immediately ran into conflict with Russia, which demanded that the U.S. forswear any threat to use force as part of a deal. Moscow also insisted that the Security Council not implement the program under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force.
Russian officials have been deeply resistant to even weak council resolutions concerning Syria, fearing they could open the way to an international military force.
Already skeptical of the plan, Obama administration officials warned that it could disintegrate before the end of the week.
The plan “has to have consequences if games are played, or if somebody tries to undermine this,” Kerry said during a Google+ Hangout conversation on Syria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers the proposal needed to go before the Security Council as a resolution that includes a timetable, a process and consequences for Syria, if it reneges.
“What’s important is to make sure this isn’t some delay tactic, that this isn’t some ruse,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was working with Syria to draft a proposal and planned to deliver it soon to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. And the Syrian government said it backed the Russian plan precisely because it could prevent a U.S. military strike.
“We agreed with the Russian initiative, proceeding from the understanding that it must cut the ground from under the feet of the U.S. aggression against our country,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said during a meeting with the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin.
If Obama ends up rejecting the Russian proposal, he could be forced to resume his effort to win congressional authorization for a strike.
His threat to strike Syria continued to draw new opposition on Capitol Hill, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose decision conflicts with the position of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I believe it’s important to try to help the president provide a unified front,” Boehner said, even as he made a nod to his own problems rounding up votes. “It’s a very difficult issue for Congress.”
The split between the two top GOP leaders in Congress comes as McConnell, who is running for reelection next year, aligned himself with the tea party wing of the GOP, which has gained influence at the expense of traditional defense hawks. McConnell said he did not believe limited strikes would deter Assad from using chemical weapons.
Times staff writers Henry Chu in London, Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.