Senate shelves resolution on military strike against Syria, deferring to diplomacy

September 11, 2013

The Senate is shelving for now a resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria, deferring to diplomatic efforts as Secretary of State John F. Kerry prepares for a potentially crucial meeting Thursday with his Russian counterpart in Geneva on a proposal to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons.

Announcing the move on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, “We’ve agreed on a way forward based on the president’s speech last night.” He referred to President Obama’s nationally televised address in which he said he would seize the diplomatic opening offered by the Russians, while also arguing that the United States must retaliate for a Syrian chemical weapons attack last month if the disarmament effort fails.

Reid said the Senate would move on so as “not to tread water” on the Syrian issue. But talks on the wording of a new use-of-force resolution against Syria will continue among members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and other senior senators who are often involved in foreign affairs and military policy.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will try to forge agreement on how to launch — and enforce — an international effort to transfer and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, which the government of President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used on Aug. 21 to kill more than 1,400 civilians in rebel-held or contested areas outside Damascus.

Although Russia proposed the international effort Monday — and quickly elicited backing from Syria — Lavrov and President Vladi­mir Putin just as quickly rejected a French proposal for a U.N. Security Council resolution to establish a legally binding chemical inspection regime, backed by the authorization to use force if Syria did not comply.

President Obama addressed the nation Tuesday night to make his case for taking targeted action in Syria. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

Putin called the threat of military action “unacceptable” and said a weapons deal would work only if the United States and its allies renounced using force against Syria.

In his speech Tuesday night, Obama told Americans that he would try one last time to eliminate the outlawed weapons through diplomacy. But if that effort fails, he said, the United States must be willing to launch military strikes that would degrade Assad’s ability to use such weapons.

“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.” Obama said.

Obama’s much-anticipated speech drew little reaction from world leaders overnight and mixed responses at home.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday that the White House should put a very short deadline on negotiations with Russia — perhaps 48 or 72 hours — and added that Russia’s opposition to the initial attempt to draft a Security Council resolution is a bad sign.

“Put me down as extremely skeptical,” McCain said at a Wall Street Journal media breakfast. “The president was arguing for action and at the same time arguing for a pause.”

The purpose of Thursday’s meeting between Kerry and Lavrov is to make sure that what Russia has in mind for Syria’s weapons is comprehensive and verifiable in the midst of a protracted civil war, a senior State Department official said, and to make clear that the United States and its partners insist that the proposal includes consequences if Syria does not comply.

“We’re waiting for that proposal,” Kerry told a House committee Tuesday, “but we’re not waiting for long. We will take a hard look at it, but it has to be swift, it has to be real, and it has to be verifiable. . . . If the U.N. Security Council seeks to be the vehicle to make it happen, well, then, it can’t be a debating society.”

Russia initially called for an emergency Security Council meeting to discuss the standoff over including military authorizations in the U.N. proposal. But officials agreed after a telephone conversation between Kerry and Lavrov that the two diplomats instead should meet one-on-one.

Russia has handed over to the United States a plan for implementing international control over Syrian chemical weapons and hopes that Lavrov can discuss it with Kerry when they meet, an Interfax news agency reporter, traveling with Lavrov in Kazakhstan, wrote Wednesday.

Obama’s speech Tuesday was delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern time — after midnight in Europe and well before dawn in the Middle East. But even on Wednesday, there was little to suggest that the president’s words had sparked new thinking from the nations involved in the international debate.

French President François Hollande, who with Obama has led the push for military action, said his country remains ready to use arms if efforts to secure an international agreement fall through.

“France will remain mobilized” to punish Syria’s alleged use of poison gas, Hollande said in a statement, which also noted that France is determined “to explore all paths in the U.N. Security Council that permit the effective and verifiable control of chemical weapons present in Syria.”

China, which joined Russia in strongly opposing the idea of enforcing a disarmament agreement with the threat of military strikes, reiterated that position Wednesday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s leaders were aware of Obama’s “relevant” speech but had not altered their views because of it.

“China always opposes the use of force or threats to use force in international relations,” Hong said. “The proposal raised by Russia offered an important opportunity to ameliorate the current intense situation and to resolve the concerns of the international society on the Syrian chemical weapon issue. We hope that all sides will insist on solving the relevant problems via political and diplomatic measures.”

As permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia have the ability to veto resolutions. The two countries have blocked the council from taking strong action against Syria several times during its brutal 2 1 / 2 year civil war.

Since the alleged chemical weapons attacks Aug. 21, Obama has repeatedly said that if the United Nations would not authorize action, the United States and its partners could on launch unilateral, targeted airstrikes, intended to degrade Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons and deter him and others from using them.

But a Wednesday editorial in the People’s Daily — the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party — emphatically warned the United States not to take military action without Security Council approval.

“Once the U.S. launches the military attack on Syria, a sovereign state, without the authorization of the Security Council of the U.N., they are going to have two wars happening the same time,” the People’s Daily said. “It’s not hard to imagine how a disaster could occur. The security situation of the Middle East is complicated and sensitive. It is easy to blast the powder keg but it is more difficult to control the situation.”

Just a day after Russia made the surprise weapons proposal and Syria immediately announced its agreement, the Western partners remained wary that it was a ploy designed to head off Obama’s plan to launch a military strike. Kerry and other senior administration officials continued previously scheduled congressional briefings to build support for what has been called a “limited” attack to punish Syria.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition was unequivocal in its assessment, calling the initiative a strategy to stall for time and an inadequate response to a chemical attack.

“Crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions, or surrendering the weapons used to commit them,” the coalition said in a statement.

Although Syria is believed to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin and other nerve agents, its government has never explicitly acknowledged possessing them. In a CBS interview last weekend, Assad denied that any government chemical attack had taken place. He refused to confirm the existence of the stockpiles and accused the opposition of gassing his soldiers.

But in an interview Tuesday with Lebanese media, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said that his government would provide “information about our chemical weapons,” according to Russia’s state-funded RT television network.“We will open our storage sites and cease production. We intend to give up chemical weapons altogether.”

Moualem said Syria “fully supports” the Russian initiative and intends “to join the Chemical Weapons Convention” that renounces all chemical use.

The text of the proposed U.N. resolution was outlined Tuesday morning in Paris by Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister. It would authorize an investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes perpetrated by the Assad government, according to a diplomat familiar with the text.

In addition to Lavrov’s rejection of U.N. authorization of the use of force, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement indicated that Moscow does not want a Security Council resolution at all. Instead, the statement said, Russia envisions a statement by the council’s president — who rotates and is now an Australian representative — that would “welcome” the plan to monitor and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and call on “interested parties” to carry out the plan.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron told members of Parliament that the bare-bones Russian proposal was “definitely worth exploring” but that it must be “tested out properly” to ensure it was not a “ruse.” Any Security Council resolution, he said, must include “a proper timetable, process and consequences if it’s not done.”

Just two weeks ago, Cameron appeared to become peripheral to international action on Syria, after Parliament rejected his proposal to join the United States in a military strike. But the turn of events appeared to place him back in the mix as a close U.S. partner, along with France.

The Arab League, which the United States has looked toward for support for a military strike on Syria, welcomed the Russian proposal Tuesday. Speaking at its organization’s Cairo headquarters, Arab League head Nabil Elaraby told reporters that it had always been in favor of a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis, the Associated Press reported, saying that Elaraby added, “Thank God.”

Iran, among Assad’s strongest supporters, also voiced support for the plan. Quoting Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said that Damascus and Tehran welcomed the proposal as a way of preparing the ground for resolving the Syrian crisis through political means.

The Iranian news agency also said the deputy minister expected the entire region to be cleared of weapons of mass destruction, noting that Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons should also be “taken into consideration.”

.

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Debbi Wilgoren and Anne Gearan in Washington, Michael Birnbaum in Berlin, Will Englund in Moscow and William Wan in Beijing contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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