The Washington Post

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

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.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 18%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

post-politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.