US President Barack Obama has delayed a vote in Congress to authorize a strike on Syria in favor of pursuing diplomacy. In a televised address he warned that, in the meantime, the US would keep up military pressure.
In a live televised address to the nation on Tuesday the US President Barack Obama said he had requested that Congress postpone a vote on military intervention in Syria in order to explore a diplomatic initiative put forward by Russia.
Speaking from the White House's East Room, Obama said Russia's plan to seize and neutralize Syria's chemical weapons had produced some "encouraging signs." Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accepted Russia's plan on Tuesday and agreed to sign up to a UN treaty banning chemical arms.
Obama vowed to stay in personal contact with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in order to push forward with the initiative. US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile would meet his Russian counterpart for talks in Geneva on Thursday.
Obama made clear, however, it was "too early to tell" if Russia's proposal would prove successful.
"Any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, 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 said.
He noted that US cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike if necessary.
Obama: 'We know the regime was responsible'
Obama dedicated much of his address to urging war-weary Americans to back any future military action, laying out evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime had used chemical weapons. According to US intelligence, 1,429 people were killed when the regime fired sarin gas into a Damascus suburb on August 21, an act which Obama said had "profoundly changed" his previous reluctance to intervene with military force.
"If we all fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," Obama said. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them."
"Our ideals and principles as well as our national security are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used," he added.
He emphasized, however, that while a US strike would never be a "pinprick," any military action would be limited and not involve "boots on the ground."
"This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities," Obama said.
Diplomatic wrangling at UN Security Council
In a surprise move on Monday Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised to push Russia's ally to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international control in order to avert a US strike.
Syria's acceptance of the plan triggered a day of diplomatic wrangling at the UN Security Council over the wording of a resolution on the proposal.
An initial resolution, drafted by France, would demand that Syria make a complete declaration of its weapons program within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to UN inspectors or face "very severe consequences" for non-compliance. It would also lay the blame for the August 21 attacks at the feet of the Assad regime, one of several stipulations deemed "unacceptable" by Russia.
The Russians have made it clear they want to take the lead on any resolution. According to the Russian Foreign Minstry, Lavrov informed his French counterpart on Tuesday that Moscow would propose a draft declaration.
ccp/ch (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)