September 10, 2013

Obama blends threat of Syria attack, hope of diplomacy

Seizing on that two-track strategy, a group of senators crafts a resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove Syria's chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't happen.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In the run-up to a prime-time televised speech, President Barack Obama blended the threat of a military strike with the hope of a diplomatic solution Tuesday as he worked to rid Syria of an illicit stockpile of fearsome chemical weapons.

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President Barack Obama, accompanied by Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper Terrance Gainer, right, leaves a meeting with congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, where they discussed Syria. On Tuesday night, the president will address the nation on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Related headlines

OBAMA ADDRESSES THE NATION ON SYRIA

WHEN: Tuesday, 9 p.m.

TV: All major broadcast networks and cable news channels.

Secretary of State John Kerry set a hurry-up trip to Geneva for talks Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the United Nations Security Council first scheduled, and then scrapped, a private meeting on steps to defuse a looming crisis.

Despite expressing skepticism about the outcome of the diplomacy, officials said, Obama and close Senate allies reaffirmed their decision for a pause in attempts to win congressional backing for a strike against President Bashar Assad's government.

And while a presidential statement to that effect was possible in Obama's nationwide speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointedly told a congressional hearing it was not time to let the threat lapse. "For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue," he declared.

At the same hearing, Kerry said any diplomacy "cannot be a process of delay. This cannot be a process of avoidance."

He later added that any agreement must include binding consequences if Syria fails to comply, and lawmakers moved to rewrite pending legislation along the same lines.

Obama himself "wasn't overly optimistic about" prospects for a solution at the U.N., said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, after his party's rank and file met privately for lunch in the Capitol with the president. He quoted Obama as saying that even if a credible plan could be worked out, it could be difficult to push through the U.N. Security Council. And, indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin said such a U.N. effort could work only if "the American side and those who support the USA in this sense reject the use of force."

The president readied his speech as a small crowd of anti-war protesters, some waving signs, gathered outside the gates of the White House.

The background for his remarks included an unpredictable chain of events stemming from the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21 that the Obama administration swiftly blamed on Assad's government.

U.S. officials say more than 1,400 died in the episode, including at least 400 children, and other victims suffered uncontrollable twitching, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms typical of exposure to chemical weapons banned by international treaty. Other casualty estimates are lower, and Assad has said the attack was launched by rebels who have been fighting to drive him from power in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians.

Assad's patron, Russia, has blocked U.S. attempts to rally the Security Council behind a military strike. But Monday, after a remark by Kerry, it spoke favorably about requiring Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons, and the Syrian foreign minister did likewise.

The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that his government was ready to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in line with Russia's proposal in order "to thwart U.S. aggression." He also said Syria was prepared to sign an international chemical convention it has long rejected — a step it can take on its own at any time without U.S. or U.N. supervision.

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