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Obama prepares to explain his Syria strategy to a skeptical nation

September 10, 2013|By Christi Parsons, Michael A. Memoli and Paul Richer

WASHINGTON – Preparing to deliver a rare prime-time White House address, President Obama on Tuesday found himself unexpectedly tasked with a dual challenge: bolster public support for his decision to launch military strikes against Syria while explaining his decision to pursue a diplomatic alternative.

The almost contradictory messages reflected the unsettled state of affairs in the standoff with Syria over a reported nerve gas attack in Damascus suburbs nearly three weeks ago. The White House and U.S. allies worked quickly to explore the viability of a Russian proposal to put the Middle Eastern nation’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control.

The Obama administration declared it was skeptical that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad would follow through with the plan. Still, in meeting with senators on Capitol Hill, Obama asked lawmakers to give him 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.

But the president’s speech from the East Room was announced before Russia’s plan emerged. While diplomats in Paris, Damascus, Moscow and Washington worked through the details – running into early signs of the difficulty of crafting a workable plan – Obama continued his public relations campaign.

The speech, which aides rewrote on the fly, was designed as the keynote of a week of meetings, briefings, speeches and phone calls aimed at lawmakers whom Obama needs to win over in his pursuit of congressional authorization for a strike against the Syrian government.

But on Capitol Hill, resistance to entering another Middle Eastern war seemed to firm up with the sudden appearance of the Russia alternative.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indefinitely postponed an initial vote on an authorization resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee last week. Reid 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 began to draft language that would incorporate the Russian offer, perhaps authorizing force only if Syria refused to allow an outside entity, most likely the United Nations, to secure its chemical weapons stockpile. It could also demand a U.N. resolution condemning Syria for using chemical weapons on its people, a charge the Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, emphasized that the resolution was still being crafted. But he 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. So you’ve got to find a way to keep that pressure on. That’s the key to success at the U.N.,” Levin said.

The president told Democrats he needed a number of days to pursue the diplomatic channels. But he “was not overly optimistic,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader.

“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. We want this to end well, we want the end of chemical weapons in Syria. And if we can achieve that through the president’s threatened use of military force, that’s a good thing for safety in the world.”

Obama, along with his French and British counterparts, agreed Tuesday to explore the proposal with Russia and China, Syria’s allies on the U.N. Security Council. The two countries have used their veto power to block previous punitive measures targeting Assad’s government.

Obama spoke with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron separately Tuesday. An advisor to Obama said the administration intends to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution that would require the Syrian government to turn over all its chemical weapons.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin said U.N. action would come to fruition only if the United States and allied nations agreed to forgo military action against Syria.

"It is difficult to make any country – Syria or any other country in the world – to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration," Putin said, according to Russia’s RT news service.

The European Union, which was wary of military action, also welcomed the proposal, as its top diplomat urged quick work on the nettlesome details involving the verification and destruction of the arsenal. 

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