Obama readies for Syria speech under different circumstances

Greg Nash

President Obama prepared to address the nation Tuesday about the rapidly shifting developments in Syria, hours after he asked Senate Democrats to delay a vote authorizing a military strike on Syria.

The president's 9 p.m. address from the East Room of the White House was initially billed as an chance to persuade a war wary American public of the need to launch a military strike in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons. But a last-minute offer from Syrian officials has renewed hope of a diplomatic solution, while complicating the president's task.

Obama told Democrats at a meeting on Capitol Hill he wanted a vote authorizing military force delayed to give the international diplomatic process more time to work.

“His main message is we need to allow time for diplomatic situation to play itself out but at the same time we need to keep the threat of military force credible because that’s how we got here in the first place,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who explained that Obama argued the threat of force had spurred Russia to enter negotiations.

But the president is expected to still present his moral case for action, arguing that the Syrian regime would have never offered concessions without the looming threat of U.S. action.

"Doing so will further strengthen our diplomatic efforts," a White House official said.

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The White House faced tall odds in securing approval of a strike, making the diplomatic route more favorably politically. 

A number of senators in both parties came out against a strike on Monday and Tuesday, and Obama's odds of winning a House vote appeared even starker. Public opinion is also solidly against military action in Syria. 

Obama told Democrats that talks between Syria, Russia and France appeared to be headed toward a viable solution, under which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would give up his chemical weapons stockpile.

“There did not seem to be a credible diplomatic solution 24 hours ago and now this seems like it is and the president told that to the caucus,” the aide said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Tuesday that his country would be willing to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and open its chemical weapons sites to the United Nations.

“We fully support Russia’s initiative concerning chemical weapons in Syria, and we are ready to cooperate. As a part of the plan, we intend to join the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Muallem told Lebanon-based Al-Maydeen TV, according to RT.com. 

“We are ready to fulfill our obligations in compliance with this treaty, including through the provision of information about our chemical weapons. We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations.”

Russia, however, said Tuesday it would not agree to a deal unless the U.S. agreed that air strikes were off the table. 

"Certainly, this is all reasonable, it will function and will work out, only if the US 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," Russian President Vladimir Putin told Russian television network RT. 

In response to Russia's and Syria's offer on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) canceled a procedural vote scheduled for Wednesday on authorizing a limited military strike on Syria. 

According to the White House, Obama spoke separately to French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday morning on a Russian-brokered plan that would have Syria relinquish its chemical weapons to international control. 

"They agreed to work closely together, and in consultation with Russia and China, to explore seriously the viability of the Russian proposal to put all Syrian chemical weapons and related materials fully under international control in order to ensure their verifiable and enforceable destruction," the White House official said.

"These efforts will begin today at the United Nations and will include a discussion on elements of a potential U.N. Security Council resolution."

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has said officials are working on a plan to transfer Syrian chemical weapons to international control. French officials are pushing a resolution to grant U.N. approval of the weapons transfer.

Reid on Tuesday endorsed the potential deal and said he would delay a Senate vote authorizing military intervention in Syria to give international negotiators more time.

“If there is a realistic chance, and I certainly hope there is, to secure Syria’s chemical weapons that brought further atrocities of the Assad regime, we shouldn’t turn our backs on that chance,” he said.

Reid emphasized, however, that international negotiators would have a limited window to reach agreement.

“For such a solution to be plausible, the Assad regime must act quickly to prove their offer is real, not merely a ploy to delay military action or action of the United States Senate.”

“As I said last night, it’s appropriate to allow other conversations to go on,” Reid said. “France, Russia, and we understand Syria is involved in this.

“This is aimed at avoiding military action. We’ll have to see if this works out,” he said.

Separately from the bipartisan group, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has already drafted legislative text for a measure that would require Syria to give up its weapons.

Under Shaheen’s proposal, Obama would only have authorization to launch strikes if “Syria is not taking credible and concrete steps toward the removal and destruction of [its] chemical weapons stockpile," according to text provided by a Senate aide.

— This report was posted at 10:51 a.m. and updated at 6:13 p.m.