WASHINGTON -- US President Barack Obama gave a speech from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday night, opening the door for negotiations with Russia over Syria's chemical arsenal while arguing that a military strike against Bashar Assad's regime would be morally justified.
"Sometimes, resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough," Obama said in a prime time, nationally broadcast address. "When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way."
The White House had planned the address before Russia had proposed-- and Syria had theoretically agreed-- to a deal that would rid Syrian President Bashar Assad of his massive stockpile of chemical weapons.
The US on Tuesday welcomed the Assad government's decision to disown its 1,000 ton stockpile, the largest in the world, and to sign on to the United Nations' Chemical Weapons Convention.
If the plan is seen through, Syria will have shifted a decades-old policy of refusing to acknowledge the existence of its chemical weapons program virtually overnight. Just Sunday, Assad was denying its existence to CBS' Charlie Rose.
"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," Obama said. "But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies."
Obama spoke directly to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who were on the verge of delivering him an historic rejection as a vote approached on the authorization of the use of force.
"To my friends on the Right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just," Obama said.
Congress has seen eighteen votes brought forth by American presidents requesting the use of force since World War II, and has rejected none of them.
"To my friends on the Left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor," he added.
Two weeks ago, the president moved American warships to the Eastern Mediterranean, close to the Syrian coast, to take aim at Syrian targets in order to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians on August 21.
Over 1,400 died in the suburbs of Damascus overnight by suffocation. Over 400 were children, Obama said.
In his speech, the president said he has ordered the US military to retain its "current posture" should he decide to strike, if negotiations fail.
Challenged from both sides on the merits of a strike, and from the international community, the president insisted that the United States retained a unique place in the world, reinforcing global order in the face of great threats to its stability.
"America is not the world’s policeman," Obama declared. "Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong."
"But when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act."
He said that the limited strike in Syria that he has advocated would not be inconsequential.
"The US military doesn’t do pin pricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."
The US president said that Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with
his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in the coming days to discuss the diplomatic
initiative and that he himself would discuss it with Russian President
In response to Obama's speech, Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, leading supporters of US military strikes in Syria, called for a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian proposal.
“Such a plan would require the United States, together with our friends and allies, to immediately introduce a tough UN Security Council resolution that lays out what steps Syria would have to take to give up its chemical weapons, including making a full and accurate declaration of all of its chemical weapons and granting international monitors unfettered access to all sites in Syria that possess these weapons," the senators said in a statment.
"This resolution would have to threaten serious consequences if the Assad regime does not comply, and it would have to be presented to the Security Council for an up or down vote. We would expect Russia and China to support such a resolution without delay,” McCain and Graham added.