Obama seeks to pressure Syria amid diplomacy push
Washington, September 10, 2013
Top Obama administration officials urged Congress on Tuesday to keep the pressure on Syria over its chemical weapons arsenal while the United States explores a diplomatic alternative to military strikes.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states have renewed their demands for the United Nations Security Council to take deterrent measures against Assad's government over a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people.
The statement was the first from the GCC, a main backer of rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, since Russia unveiled a proposal to avoid military strikes by dismantling Syria's chemical weapons.
"The GCC condemns the ugly crime committed by the Syrian regime by using internationally banned chemical weapons, which resulted in the killing of hundreds of civilians," said Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.
The potential diplomatic breakthrough put the brakes on a planned vote in Congress on the authorization of military force as lawmakers and the administration sought more time to assess Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress the threat of military action was critical to forcing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to bend on his chemical weapons.
"For this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action - the credible, real threat of U.S. military action - must continue," Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee.
The Senate delayed a vote planned for Wednesday authorizing military force. Kerry said President Barack Obama might speak to congressional leaders on the "when and how" of an eventual vote.
"Nothing has changed with respect to our request for the Congress to take action," Kerry told the House hearing. "As to when and how, that's something the president may want to chat with the leadership about."
Obama will visit Senate Democrats and Republicans in separate meetings at the Capitol on Tuesday before making a nationally televised address from the White House.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Democratic House members that diplomacy, rather than military action, was the priority now, said U.S. Representative Gene Green, a Texas Democrat.
Obama had faced stiff resistance in Congress to any military action, and lawmakers on both sides of the issue were quick to seize on the Russian proposal as a possible way out even as more proclaimed their opposition to U.S. strikes.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that he would oppose a resolution on military force in Syria because "a vital national security risk is clearly not in play.
The Russian diplomatic initiative, which emerged after off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry on Monday alluding to such a deal, marked a sudden reversal following weeks in which the West appeared headed toward intervention in Syria's 2 1/2-year-old civil war.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who announced last week he would support a strike, said the American people still did not support military action in Syria and Obama needed to make a stronger case.
Obama has said Assad needs to be held accountable for an August 21 poison gas attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of children.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president will claim credit for the potential diplomatic breakthrough in his speech. "We see this as potentially a positive development and we see this as a clear result of the pressure that has been put on Syria," Carney said on MSNBC of the Russian proposal.
The Obama administration will begin discussions with the U.N. Security Council on Russia's proposal on Tuesday. Obama spoke by phone with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron about the proposal.
Influential Republican Senator John McCain, a strong supporter of military action in Syria, said he was working to modify the congressional resolution authorizing U.S. military force to include a "strict" timeline for Damascus to turn over chemical weapons.
McCain said he was "extremely skeptical" about such a diplomatic solution but it would be a mistake not to pursue it.
"Some of us are already working on a modification to a congressional resolution that would require strict timelines and strict guidelines that would have to be met as part of the authorization for the president," he said on CBS' "This Morning" program.
McCain offered few specifics about his measure, but other lawmakers have also been floating proposals that would allow a certain window of time before allowing Obama to take further action, which could include air strikes.
Carney also noted "there is ample reason to be skeptical" about Syria's intentions.
"We need to make sure beforehand that the Syrians are serious and will actually follow through on a commitment to give up a chemical weapons stockpile that they've been husbanding for decades against this international prohibition," he said.-Reuters