Obama gives Syria one diplomatic option

 REUTERSPresident Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington on Tuesday night.

REUTERS
President Barack Obama addresses the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington on Tuesday night.

By David Nakamura and Zachary A. Goldfarb, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he will seize one last diplomatic opening to avoid military strikes on Syria but made a forceful case for why the United States must retaliate for that nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons if the effort fails.

In a nationally televised address, Obama cautiously welcomed a Russian proposal that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad give up its stockpile of chemical weapons, signaling that he would drop his call for a military assault on the regime if Assad complies.

But with little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama argued that the nation must be prepared to strike Syria. Facing a skeptical public and Congress, the war-weary president said the United States carries the burden of using its military power to punish regimes that would flout long-held conventions banning the use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

“If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” Obama said. “The purpose of a strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make clear to the world we will not tolerate their use.” But he added that he has “a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions” as he pledged to work with international partners to negotiate with Russia over a United Nations resolution on a Syria solution.

The speech was a plea from a president who, defying public opinion, has pushed the United States toward using force in Syria — and staked his and the nation’s credibility on whether he can get Congress to support him. But it also followed two days of intense political and diplomatic negotiations on Capitol Hill and abroad that appear to have shifted his calculus for how quickly to move forward with direct intervention.

Obama pledged that before pursuing military options, his administration would explore a surprise offer from Russia on Monday to persuade Assad to surrender his chemical weapons to United Nations inspectors.

 

The president had visited Congress in the afternoon, asking senators in both parties to delay a vote on a resolution that would authorize him to order strikes on Syrian government targets in retaliation for the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 that reportedly killed more than 1,400 Syrians near Damascus.

A White House official said Obama spent an hour apiece with the Democratic and Republican caucuses, reviewing evidence of the attack and reiterating his decision to pursue a “limited, targeted” military strike that would not involve U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

But the president also told lawmakers that he would “spend the days ahead pursuing this diplomatic option with the Russians and our allies at the United Nations,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

The proposal appeared to be gaining traction Tuesday, as Syria embraced it and China and Iran voiced support. But a telephone conversation between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, revealed a deep divide over their visions of the U.N. Security Council’s role and particularly over the prospect of military action to ensure that an agreement would be honored.

There also were doubts about how Syria’s stockpiles could be transferred to international monitors amid a protracted civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

The call took place after France said it would draft a Security Council resolution to put the Russian proposal into effect.

The Russian offer could serve as a potential escape hatch for a president who has at times appeared reluctant to pursue military force, even after saying he believed it was the right course to reinforce a “red line” against chemical weapons. Obama has struggled to build an international coalition for such action.

And with congressional and public support for a U.S. strike dwindling rapidly over the past week, Obama’s request to delay the Senate vote bought him time to try to convince the public that the White House is pursuing a viable and coherent strategy despite a muddled message since the alleged chemical attack.

“Bottom line is we’re all going to try to work together,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., after the lunch with Obama. “There is hope, but not yet trust in what the Russians are doing. But I think there’s a general view, whether people are for it or against it, there’s an overwhelming view that it would be preferable if international law and the family of nations could strip Syria of the chemical weapons. And there’s a large view we should let that process play out for a little while.”

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a key GOP proponent of a military strike in Syria, emphasized that the option of U.S. force remained viable, but he added that “it’s probably good for us just to take a pause.”

At the same time, administration officials made clear that they will not accept the Russian offer at face value or engage in protracted negotiations that indefinitely delay its response to Assad. Russia has consistently blocked U.N. action against Syria, its geopolitical ally, frustrating the Obama administration and leading the president to announce that he would pursue military strikes independent of that international body.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States would demand a Security Council resolution authorizing a strike if Syria refused to turn over its chemical stockpile, a provision the Russians promptly rejected.

Kerry told a House committee that the proposal “is the ideal way” to take chemical weapons away from Assad’s forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin countered that the disarmament plan could succeed only if the United States and its allies renounced the use of force against Syria.

Kerry will travel to Europe this week to discuss the proposal with Lavrov, a senior administration official said later Tuesday. The meeting will be held Thursday in Geneva, where the United States and Russia hope to convene a separate peace conference on Syria, the official said.

“We need a full resolution from the Security Council,” Kerry said Tuesday during an online forum held by Google. “There have to be consequences if games are played.”

The stakes were high for Obama’s address to the nation. He has delivered just nine White House speeches in prime time, according to CBS Radio correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps tallies on presidential appearances. Obama chose the grand East Room over the more intimate Oval Office, which is the traditional location for commanders in chief to talk to the country about war.

Experts said it made sense for Obama to delay the congressional vote because his hand would be strengthened even if the Russia proposal fails.

“It gets him out of his disastrous political mess,” said Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official. Obama will be able to say he made every effort to avoid a military conflict, making it “a lot easier for him to make the case for force.”

But other analysts were more circumspect, fearing that stalling on the part of Russia and Syria could give Assad time to hide his stockpile.

“The most dangerous downside,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “is you get absorbed in endless processes which take you back to the status quo ante and you neither removed the weapons and you lost the momentum when there was support for action.”

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Washington Post staff writers Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Obama administration to press case on Syria but support for strikes wavers

Congressional leaders to be briefed on chemical weapons evidence as White House resists comparisons with Iraq war

The briefings with congressional leaders would be given by the secretary of state John Kerry, and secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, officials said. Photo: Reuters

The briefings with congressional leaders would be given by the secretary of state John Kerry, and secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, officials said. Photo: Reuters

Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian

Senior US intelligence officials were seeking to persuade Congress on Thursday that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks, as the White House resisted comparisons with intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Leaders of key congressional committees were due to participate in “unclassified briefing” by telephone on Thursday, amid signs that some of the support for military strikes against Syria is fading.

A separate, unclassified report on the US intelligence assessment is being prepared for release to the public before the end of the week.

The UK released an intelligence assessment on Thursday that said it was “highly likely” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a chemical attack that killed hundreds in a Damascus suburb last week.

However, the document contained few specifics, and failure by the US and UK to say with absolute certainty that the attacks were conducted by the Syrian government have prompted challenging questions in Congress and led to signs of growing anxiety among traditional US allies.

It has also prompted comparisons with Iraq in 2003, when the US launched an invasion on the pretext of weapons of mass destructions that were never found. “As it relates to the situation in Iraq, I don’t agree these are similar situations,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.

“What we saw in that circumstance that an administration was searching high and low to produce evidence to justify a military invasion, an open-ended military invasion of another country, with the final goal being regime change,” he said. “That was the articulated policy of the previous administration.”

Earnest said any strikes carried out by the US and its allies would be “discreet and limited”.

In a sign of the importance the White House is attaching to support from Capitol Hill, the briefings with “congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of national security committees” would be given by the secretary of state John Kerry, and secretary of defence Chuck Hagel.

Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice and director of national intelligence James Clapper will also participate in the briefing.

Separately, Obama personally briefed the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boenher. A spokesman for Boenher said in a statement he had raised the question of the legality for any military strike and pressed him to consult further with Congress.

Republican senator Jim Inhofe, the ranking member of armed services committee, said he was opposed to using force in Syria when military resources are depleted and there was insufficient evidence of regional backing. “It is vital we avoid short-sighted military action that would have little impact on the long-term trajectory of the conflict,” he said. “We can’t simply launch a few missiles and hope for the best.”

Obama was criticised for failing to consult Congress sufficiently before air strikes in Libya in 2011. However, there is no sign the White House would seek a Congressional before launching strikes.

In London, prime minister David Cameron laid out Britain’s case for possible military intervention in a parliamentary debate, but doubts remain over whether the House of Commons would approve a joint action with the US. In an attempt to prevent a parliamentary defeat, Cameron committed to a second vote after UN inspectors have completed their report on the chemical attacks in Damascus.

France has also called for a delay to any military action until the UN inspectors complete their work.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, instructed the 20-strong inspection team in Damascus to leave on Saturday, a day before they had expected to leave. Ban also announced the team would report to him immediately on departure.

Military and foreign policy experts were split over whether the US would forge ahead with cruise missile strikes against Syria. Obama, who has long been reluctant to be engaged militarily in the Middle East, is now considering the prospect of taking military action with less international support than George Bush’s 2003 invasion of in Iraq.

However, Earnest, the White House deputy spokesman, seemed to confirm that was a possibility when he was asked whether the US would “go it alone”.

Earnest repeatedly said it was in US “core national security interests” to enforce international chemical weapons norms. “The president of the United States is elected with the duty to protect the national security interests of America,” he said. “The decisions he makes about our foreign policy is with our national security interests front and centre.”

Analysts said that with the Arab League condemning Syria but not backing military action, and no prospect of a UN security council mandate, reluctance on the part of Britain and France could prove a problem for the US.

Michael O’Hanlon, the director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution, said fading international support was “regrettable”, the Obama administration was unlikely to pull back from the brink at this stage.

Sean Kay, a Nato expert at Ohio Wesleyan University, said it looked likely that the US would attack Syria with or without the UK. “I think they’re trying to make it clear they’re determined to move forward,” he said.

Many in Washington believe military action is a fait accompli. UN weapons inspections were ordered to leave Syria ahead of schedule on Thursday ahead of schedule amid mounting anticipation of US-led military strikes. But others argue that doubts over intelligence and lack of support from key allies could delay or even lead to the abandonment of military action.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, detected that “caution has grown” in the White House over the last 24 hours.

“I think they’ve found over the last couple of days both a lack of support at home, both among the American people and Congress, and then they look internationally and suddenly they don’t feel quite so surrounded by friends,” he said.

Bandow said that an “embarrassing backdown” by the US remained a possibility, and predicted that doubt in Britain, and lack of support elsewhere, would delay any strikes.

Britain’s joint intelligence committee (JIC) concluded it is “highly likely” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapon attacks in Syria. But the assessment was mainly based on “open source” evidence such as video footage of the victims, and a judgment that the opposition does not have the capability to launch such an attack. It described the evidence base of a deliberate attack to clear opposition from suburbs in Damascus as only “limited but growing”.

Chairs and ranking members of key congressional committees, who have been briefed on the intelligence, have endorsed the view that Assad’s forces were responsible for the attack.

But all have stopped short of saying the evidence is unequivocal.

Citing “multiple US officials”, the Associated Press reported on Monday that there were gaps in the US intelligence picture, which was “thick with caveats”.

Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst, said the Syria crisis reminded him of the one preceding the Iraq war. “There are enough similarities that it makes one very nervous,” he said. “This rhymes with what happened over Iraq WMD.”

One of the few voices of caution inside the US intelligence agencies when compiling the infamously erroneous 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, Thielmann said that post-Iraq intelligence reforms give him confidence that the spy agencies are not overstating their case.

But he raised questions about the seeming vagueness in the intelligence. “I would have thought there would be incentives inside the intelligence community to find out what’s going on that the US would have gotten some samples and established a chain of custody,” he said.

Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst now at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, said that with continuing uncertainty over the intelligence picture, and no obvious legal mandate for military action, the US will be desperate to secure more international backing to argue intervention is “legitimate”.

“If the administration can’t even count of the full-throated support of our closest ally, the country that stuck by us even during the worst days of Iraq, that legitimacy is going to be called into question,” he said.