Obama says he would ‘absolutely’ put off military strike if Syria gives up chemical weapons

September 9, 2013

President Obama on Monday said he would "absolutely" put on hold a military strike against Syria if the government there gave up control of its chemical weapons, even as he expressed skepticism that President Bashar al-Assad would agree to do so.

"If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference," Obama said in an interview with ABC News.

When asked by ABC's Diane Sawyer whether plans for a United States military strike would be on pause if Syria yielded control of its chemical weapons to international authorities, Obama responded, "Absolutely — if in fact that happened."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Russia would ask Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors to head off a U.S. military strike in response to an alleged chemical attack last month that the United States says killed more than 1,400 people. The Syrian government said it "welcomed" the proposal.

In an interview with NBC News, Obama called the Russian proposal a "potentially positive development" that could represent a "significant breakthrough," but he said he remains skeptical that the Syrian government would follow through on its obligations under such an arrangement based on its recent track record.

"Between the statements that we saw from the Russians — the statement today from the Syrians — this represents a potentially positive development," Obama said, according to a transcript provided by the network. "We are going to run this to ground.  [Secretary of State] John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart. We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are."

Obama said his preference "consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem." But the president credited the threat of U.S. military action, which he said has led to Syria's latest posture.

"I think what we're seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world, has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move," Obama said on NBC.

If the Syrian government does make the move, Obama said, "then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate — over the last couple a years."

The president said he intends to keep the threat of military action on the table, but acknowledged on ABC that a "strike may be less effective if I don't have congressional support and if the American people don't recognize why we're doing this." Obama later added, "My hope would be that I can persuade Congress (and) the American people."

Obama intends to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday night. Before Monday's developments, the speech was viewed as perhaps Obama's last best chance to convince a skeptical Congress to support a military strike on the eve of a critical test vote.

But as the opposition piled up, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled back his plan to hold a test vote Wednesday on the use-of-force resolution, delaying for at least a day when that hurdle would need to be cleared. This will allow Obama to make his case to both Senate caucuses at Tuesday’s weekly policy luncheons, after which Democrats and the White House can assess their next steps.

Reid’s action came amid an alarming amount of opposition in the Senate, creating the possibility that the proposal may not receive simple majority support. A handful of veteran Republicans, all seen as mainstream conservatives, announced their opposition Monday.

Obama said Monday that he "hasn't decided" whether he would move ahead with a strike if Congress votes against approving military action. And he sounded less confident than he has in recent days that lawmakers would back his call for an attack.

"I wouldn't say I'm confident," Obama told NBC."I'm confident that the members of Congress are taking this issue very seriously and — and they're doing their homework and I appreciate that."

Obama's remarks came as a part of a media blitz Monday as the president conducted six television interviews as the White House continued to try to win support behind the scenes of a Congress skeptical about military action.

Mentioning first lady Michelle Obama, the president said he understands that the nation is wary of being involved in another war.

"If you ask somebody, if you ask Michelle — 'Do we — do we want to be involved in another war?' The answer is no.  People are — are — wary about it, understandably," he said.

Obama also sought to assuage concerns over Secretary of State John Kerry's remark that a U.S. strike would be "unbelievably small."

"The U.S. does not do pinpricks," Obama said on NBC. "Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria."

Responding to Assad's warning that a U.S. strike could trigger retaliatory attacks, Obama said "Syria doesn't have significant capabilities to retaliate against us. Iran does. But Iran is not going to risk a war with the United States over this. Particularly given that our goal here is to make sure that chemical weapons are not used on children."

-- Paul Kane contributed to this post

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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