By Justin Sink - 09/11/13 01:28 AM EDT
President Obama on Tuesday said he would seek to avoid a military strike as the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons turned dramatically away from Congress and toward negotiations at the United Nations.
“I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” Obama said in a prime-time address from the White House’s East Room.
“What kind of a world will we live in if we see a dictator brazenly violate international law and we look the other way?” Obama said.
But he made it clear that instead of seeking authorization from Congress for a strike — which the House and Senate seemed unlikely to approve — he would pursue a diplomatic solution through the United Nations.
The president’s address capped a day when events moved at breakneck pace and Democrats and Republicans fought furiously over whether they amount to a triumph or humiliation for the United States.
As the commander in chief embraced a diplomatic solution variously claimed to be an American, Russian or Polish idea, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the new direction “validates what the president is doing” and added, “I think this is a victory for President Obama, if it is real.”
Republicans, conversely, accused the president of letting Syria off the hook with a deal that could not work and of seriously eroding American influence in the Middle East.
The prospect of Syria relinquishing its weapons came “along just in time to bail President Obama out of a losing situation,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an early opponent of military action.
“It gets him off the hook of painting himself in the corner he did, drawing the red line that he did and then not acting,” said Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Central to the debate is whether the U.S. can trust any offer coming from the Assad’s government that was brokered by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem insisted that his country intended “to give up chemical weapons altogether,” join the Chemical Weapons Convention and open its arsenal to U.N. inspection.
“We are ready to fulfill our obligations in compliance with this treaty, including through the provision of information about our chemical weapons,” Muallem told Lebanon-based Al- Mayadeen TV. “We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations.”
But that breakthrough concession was thrown into jeopardy when Putin said he would not agree to a deal unless the U.S. took airstrikes off the table.
“Certainly, this is all reasonable, it will function and will work out, only if the U.S. and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because 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 told Russian television network RT.
Russia also said it would not support a binding resolution in the United Nations Security Council that condemned Syria’s chemical weapons use and called for the destruction of its chemical weapons cache. Moscow withdrew a request for an emergency meeting of the Security Council slated for Tuesday afternoon after news that the United Kingdom and France had begun writing a draft resolution.
The Kremlin’s insistence that the Security Council not weigh in could complicate matters in Washington, where a bipartisan group of senators was working on legislation that would authorize the use of force unless the U.N. passed a resolution stating that Assad gassed his own people. It would also call on the U.N. to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons by a certain date.
Secretary of State John Kerry planned to continue negotiations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Thursday in Geneva.
In a Web chat hosted by the State Department, Kerry said he did not “want to raise expectations because there are some big hurdles as far as verifiability and implementation that we have to cross.” He also cautioned that the Syrian regime could be using the offer as a stalling tactic.
“This cannot be a game, and that we have made very, very clear to the Russians,” he said.
The diplomatic effort intensified Monday after Russia urged Syria to take up Kerry’s offer to avoid a strike by turning over its chemical weapons.
Russia appeared to pounce on off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry, though Obama said he’d broached the subject with Putin during several conversations.
A report in the German newspaper Die Weld highlighted Tuesday on Buzzfeed said gave credit to Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. According to the German publication, Sikorski called Kerry on Aug. 29 to submit a plan similar to the one proposed by the Russians.
Earlier Tuesday, the president told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that they should slow-walk their vote in order to give his administration time to evaluate a diplomatic solution.
That had Obama allies on Capitol Hill breathing a sigh of relief, as the White House faced long odds to secure approval of a strike.
Public opinion is squarely against intervention; a CBS News poll released this week found six in 10 Americans opposed a strike.
Jeremy Herb, Mike Lillis, and Alexander Bolton contributed.