WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama conditionally endorsed a Russian offer for international inspectors to seize and destroy deadly chemical weapons in Syria as efforts to avert retaliatory U.S. missile strikes shift from Washington to the United Nations.
In a nationally televised address Tuesday night, Obama offered a rationale for greater U.S. intervention in a sectarian civil war that has dragged on for more than two years even while acknowledging that winning the hearts and minds of Americans to back another Mideast conflict remains a struggle.
The continued erosion of support in Congress for military strikes — and the resistance among the American people — underscored Obama’s challenge. The president said he had asked congressional leaders to delay a vote on a resolution authorizing limited military strikes, a step that gives the Russian offer crucial time to work and avoids a potentially debilitating defeat for Obama, at least for the time being.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama recalled the use of deadly chemical weapons in the European trenches of World War I and the Nazi gas chambers of World War II in insisting that the international community could not stand by after an attack in the suburbs of Damascus last month the administration says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. The Obama administration blames the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“If we 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 it.
The president said it was too early to say whether the Russian offer would succeed, and any agreement must ensure that the Syrian government was fulfilling its commitments.
However, the “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,” the president said.