WASHINGTON —Pushing military might and raising hopes it won't be needed, President Barack Obama threw his support Tuesday behind a plan for U.N. Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, even as he continued to advance the fallback idea of U.S. airstrikes against Bashar Assad's regime.
Seizing on that two-track strategy, a bipartisan group of senators crafted a reworked congressional resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't happen.
Obama discussed plans for U.N. action with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, then visited Capitol Hill to talk through diplomatic and military options with Democratic and Republican senators growing increasingly wary of U.S. military intervention. He was poised to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday night, still ready to press the case for congressionally-approved military action if diplomacy falls short.
“The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify,” Obama said in an interview with CBS. “The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said Obama told senators he was keeping the possibility of military intervention on the table. Markey's recap of the president's message: With the threat of military action, “you'll have a much better chance of the Syrians and the Russians actually doing what they've been talking about. If you don't keep that argument open, they may very well walk away.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Obama “believes that the proposal certainly has a long way to go, and that we also need to keep up the pressure.” This way, she added, “people know that Syria is going to be on the hook for getting rid of these weapons one way or another.”
Prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough unfolded rapidly Tuesday: Assad's government accepted a Russia-advanced plan to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile. France pitched a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify the disarmament. The U.N. Security Council, at Russia's request, scheduled closed consultations for late afternoon. Syria's foreign minister said the nation would declare its chemical weapons arsenal and sign an international chemical weapons treaty.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama, Holland and Cameron agreed to work closely together in consultation with Russia and China to explore the Russian proposal to put all Syrian chemical weapons “under the control of a verifiable destruction enforcement mechanism.”
The path forward was far from certain, however. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. would need to renounce the use of force against Syria because no country will disarm under threat of military action.
He told reporters that the plan “can work, only in the event that we hear that the American side and those who support the USA, in this sense, reject the use of force.”
Kerry countered that any deal with Syria to give up its chemical weapons must be enshrined in a binding U.N. Security Council resolution that sets consequences for Syrian non-compliance. He said Russian suggestions that the U.N. endorsement come in the form of a non-binding statement from the rotating president of the Security Council would be unacceptable to the Obama administration.
Obama's dramatic shift toward diplomacy came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and in the face of stiff resistance in Congress to a resolution that would authorize him to use military force.
A majority of the senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction were expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House was far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting military action by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.
On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against a resolution giving the president authority for limited strikes, saying, “there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria.” In another blow to the administration, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, announced his opposition, saying the resolution was too broad, “the effects of a strike are too unpredictable, and because I believe we must give diplomatic measures that could avoid military action a chance to work.”
Eager for an alternative, a bipartisan group of senators worked on a retooled resolution that would call on the United Nations to state that Syria used chemical weapons and require a U.N. team to remove them within a specific time period, possibly 60 days. If that can't be done, then Obama would have the authority to launch military strikes, congressional aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the reworked resolution.
Russia, Assad's biggest international backer, championed the diplomatic path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after meeting with the Russian parliament speaker that his government had agreed to the Russian initiative to “thwart U.S. aggression.” But the Syrian National Coalition, which had hoped for airstrikes to tip the balance in the 2-year-old civil war, cast Assad's move as a ploy to escape punishment for a crime against humanity.
Kerry, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, said the U.N. approach must not be used as a delaying tactic and that it has to provide verifiable, real and include tangible conditions for Assad to forfeit his chemical weapons.
Seeking to reassure legislators worried about a deep U.S. entanglement in Syria, he said, “I don't see any route by which we slide into Syria. I don't see the slippery slope.”
For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an “out” as it struggled to find the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama's call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing “international discussions.”
Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief.
“I always thought an international coalition to secure and destroy the chemical weapons is a far better option than military intervention,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. He called for an “American plan” to do accomplish these tasks.
But there was plenty of skepticism about the latest diplomatic initiative, too.
“I hope it's not just a delaying tactic,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after a closed meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning. But he added, “Let's see what the president has to say.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., appeared to be dropping her support for a military strike authorization.
“The few supporters that he had, he's losing them quick,” she said. “This is crazy to say that the folks who started the fire – Syria and Russia – are now going to be the firefighters putting out the fires. It's crazy to have Putin be in charge and for us to put credibility and trust with him.”
A resolution approved by a Senate committee would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote “no.” Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.
Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.