President Barack Obama said
on Monday the United States would explore Russia's potential
"breakthrough" plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under
international control but would keep the pressure on Damascus by
asking Congress to authorize US military strikes.
In a series of television interviews designed to persuade
Congress and the American public of the need for intervention,
Obama said he would pause any military action if Syria would
relinquish control of its chemical weapons arsenal.
Congress sought to buy more time to explore Russia's offer.
Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid pushed back a Wednesday test
vote on authorizing military strikes to possibly later in the
"I don't think we need to see how fast we can do this. We
have to see how well we can do this," Reid told his colleagues.
The surprise diplomatic course opened up after US
Secretary of State John Kerry made an unscripted comment earlier
on Monday. Kerry suggested in London, in response to a
reporter's question, that Syrian President Bashar Assad could
avoid a military strike by surrendering his chemical arsenal.
Russia pounced on the comment, and Syria also said it was
open to a proposal to put the weapons under international
Obama said he prefers a diplomatic solution in Syria, but is
"This could potentially be a significant breakthrough,"
Obama told NBC News in an interview. "But we have to be
skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate over
the last couple of years."
Administration officials also said the proposal would not
derail efforts to get congressional authorization for strikes,
saying it was the threat of strikes that motivated Russia's
Obama faces an uphill struggle to win approval on military
intervention from Congress, where a majority of lawmakers are
still undecided on whether to use military force to punish Syria
for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on civilians.
'WOULDN'T SAY I'M CONFIDENT'
"I wouldn't say I'm confident" of winning approval, Obama
told NBC, but he plans an intensified lobbying blitz for support
over the next few days.
In addition to the television interviews, Obama was due to
visit the Capitol on Tuesday to make his case to lawmakers from
both parties before making a televised address to the nation
from the White House in the evening.
Some lawmakers reacted positively to the Russian plan.
Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, leading supporters
of the strikes, said the Russian proposal should make it easier
to win support in Congress.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the
Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russia could be "most
effective" in encouraging Assad to place his chemical arsenal
under UN control.
"I do think that the Russians are serious. I met with the
Russian ambassador earlier today and believe that they are
serious in putting this together and that it is a plan that
could solve the problem," she said.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential
presidential candidate in 2016, waded into the debate, endorsing
Obama's drive for Congress to approve military action and saying
Syria's surrender of chemical weapons would be an "important
Hundreds of House members attended a Syria briefing late on
Monday by Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Many members
expressed interest in the Russia proposal, along with a dose of
"We should very quickly and clearly find out if this thing
is real," said Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on
the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I'm dubious, because
Russia's been a very bad player on this, blocking everything
we've tried to do in the United Nations."
The Russian proposal could make it harder for the
administration to build political momentum for military strikes
by giving an excuse to some lawmakers to say they prefer to let
the diplomatic process play out.
'THROWS A WRENCH'
"It basically throws a bit of a wrench into the
administration's approach," said Robert Danin, a Middle East
expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But it may be a
Some members of Congress said Obama has lost support for a
strike over the last week and polls indicated Americans, weary
after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, strongly opposed military
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed opposition to
a US military strike was increasing. The poll, taken Thursday
through Monday, indicated 63 percent of Americans oppose
intervention, up from 53 percent in a survey ending August 30.
Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence
Committee and a supporter of strikes, said on Monday that Obama
had "fumbled" the message on Syria and faced a critical moment.
"Mr. President, lay out the case. It's an important case for
the future national security of this country. You're right on
your decision, now show Americans why you believe it's right,"
Rogers said on MSNBC. "And when he does that, I think we're
going to get votes."
Assad, in an interview with CBS television, denied there was
any evidence linking his government to the attack and warned
that if there were strikes against Syria, the United States
should expect reprisals.
Susan Rice, making her first major speech since taking over
as Obama's national security adviser, said the United States
cannot allow countries such as North Korea and Iran to think
Washington would not react to a chemical weapons attack.
"We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a
nuclear North Korea
, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for
one minute that we are shying away from our determination to
back up our longstanding warnings," she said at the New America
Foundation think tank.
Crisis in Syria - full JPost.com coverage
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