WHITE HOUSE— President Barack Obama Tuesday laid out his case for stopping the Syrian government from using chemical weapons. The president also cautiously endorsed a Russian diplomatic initiative to defuse the crisis.
In his 15-minute address to the American people, President Obama referred to the diplomatic developments of recent days as “encouraging signs.”
Under the Russian proposal, Syria would surrender its chemical weapons to the United Nations, and the United States would freeze its plans for military strikes on Syria.
The president held out cautious optimism that the plan could work.
“It is too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime [of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force," said President Obama.
The Tuesday evening address was originally scheduled so that Obama could ask Congress and the public to support a military action.
But with the diplomatic situation rapidly changing, the speech was rewritten, and the president asked lawmakers to put their planned vote on hold.
“I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I am sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin," said Obama.
However, the president said the U.S. military will keep the pressure on the Syrian government, and will be “ready to respond” if diplomatic measures fail.
He focused much of the speech on the need to act to stop the use of chemical weapons, using military force if necessary.
The president said the situation in Syria changed on August 21, when the government of President Bashar al-Assad gassed its own citizens.
He said the video of that deadly attack is a compelling argument for action.
“Indeed, I would ask every member of Congress and those of you watching at home tonight to view those 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," he asked.
Obama said American ideals, principles and national security are at stake in Syria.
Many Americans, including members of Congress, disagree. In the latest public opinion polls, almost 60 percent of Americans surveyed say they oppose U.S. military action in Syria.
Prospects are dim for congressional approval of a military strike, especially in the House of Representatives, even though the top two House Republicans, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have endorsed it.
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.
Watch President Obama's full speech: