U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to pursue Russia's diplomatic initiative to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, but says the U.S. military will be ready to respond if diplomacy fails.
In a televised speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama referred to the Russian proposal and Syria's reported agreement as "encouraging signs."
Under the deal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government would surrender its chemical weapons to the United Nations to have them destroyed, and the United States would freeze its plans for a military strike.
Mr. Obama said it is too early to tell whether the offer will succeed, but he said it has the potential to remove the chemical weapons threat without the use of force.
The Tuesday night address was originally scheduled so that Mr. Obama could urge Congress and the public to support military action in Syria. But with the diplomatic situation rapidly changing, the president asked lawmakers to put their planned vote on hold.
Despite the shift, Mr. Obama still spent most of his 15-minute speech making the case for a targeted military strike, saying the United States' ideals, principles and national security are at stake in Syria.
He said the purpose of a U.S. strike would be to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons, degrade his regime's ability to use them, and make clear to the world that the United States will not tolerate their use.
President Obama said he resisted military action during the first two years of the conflict because "we cannot solve someone else's civil war through force." But he said the situation "profoundly changed" on August 21 when the Syrian government gassed to death more than 1,000 people outside the capital, Damascus, including hundreds of children.
Mr. Obama said if the U.S. and the international community fail to act, Mr. Assad and other tyrants would see no reason not to use chemical weapons again. He said that over time, U.S. troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorists to obtain such weapons and attack civilians with them. The president said a failure to act could open up Turkey, Jordan, Israel and other U.S. allies in the region to the threat of chemical weapons, and could embolden Mr. Assad's ally Iran.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. is not the "world's policeman," but that when "with modest effort and risk" it can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make American children safer in the long run, he believes it should act. He said he would ask every member of Congress and everyone watching at home to view the videos of the attack and then ask, "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?"
But Republican Senator Rand Paul , responding to the speech, said the president "has not made a compelling case that American interests are at risk in Syria." He said the threshold for war should be "a significant one."
Many Americans agree. In the latest public opinion polls, almost 60 percent of Americans surveyed say they oppose U.S. military action in Syria.
President Obama said in his speech that he knows that after the terrible toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action is not going to be popular.
But he vowed that he will "not put American boots on the ground in Syria," nor pursue "open-ended action" as in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a "prolonged air campaign" like in Libya or Kosovo.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the Obama administration will take a hard look at the Russian plan. Kerry intends to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday in Geneva to discuss Syria.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, U.S., British and French diplomats worked on a draft resolution Tuesday calling for strong action if Syria fails to keep its word.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the plan for Syria can only work if the United States drops its threat of force.
Syria's main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, dismissed the Russian proposal as meaningless. It said the plan still would give the Syrian army free rein to fight on with conventional weapons.
On Tuesday, the country's civil war continued, with Syrian military jets again bombing rebel positions in the capital.