US President Barack Obama has postponed his request for congressional authorisation for strikes on Syria to pursue a diplomatic solution but he warned the US military would stay on alert to respond should talks fail.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Obama said a Russian offer to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up his stockpile of chemical weapons offered the possibility of heading off the need to take military action.
He said, though, that he was sceptical of the success of the plan, adding that he had kept US forces in a position to attack as he urged Americans to support his threat to use force as a necessary alternative.
The speech came after hours of diplomatic wrangling in Moscow, Damascus and Washington DC, as Syria acknowledged it had chemical weapons and was willing to give them up, and Russia pushed for the US to drop its threat of military action.
Obama said: “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And 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.
“I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorise the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin.
“I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies – France and the United Kingdom – and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
A UN Security Council meeting on the subject was, however, postponed hours before Obama’s speech – suggesting disagreements among members about how the body should proceed.
In his speech, Obama stated that he still retained to right to order military strikes, adding: “I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.
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“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
But he acknowledged the limitations of military action.
“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes Assad – or any other dictator – think twice before using chemical weapons.”
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”