U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing military action against Syria, as he cautiously endorsed a Russian diplomatic initiative to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.
In a televised speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama referred to the Russian proposal and Syria's reported agreement as "encouraging signs," but he also stressed that the U.S. military will be ready to respond if diplomacy fails.
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 that it has the potential to remove the chemical weapons threat without the use of force. 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.
Iran and China, which have opposed outside military intervention in Syria, expressed optimism about the diplomatic path on Wednesday.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he is hopeful the United States is serious about pursuing diplomacy, while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China hopes all parties can seize the opportunity for a political resolution.
Meanwhile, French officials said Wednesday they remain ready to launch a military strike against Syria if the diplomatic efforts fail.
Diplomats from France, Britain and the U.S. worked Tuesday on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling for strong action if Syria fails to keep its word. Russia has opposed the threat of force as part of a disarmament plan.
In his Tuesday speech, Mr. Obama said the purpose of a U.S. strike against Syria 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.
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.
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.