WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama said it was too early to say if a Russian plan to secure Syria’s chemical weapons could forestall U.S. air strikes, but vowed to give diplomacy a chance.
In a somber national address, Obama warned that for reasons of national security and humanitarian decency, war-weary Americans could not simply look away after innocent children were gassed to death in an attack last month outside Damascus.
And he vowed to keep the U.S. Navy on station off the Syrian coast to keep up the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the diplomatic track is allowed to develop.
Obama spoke on national television in the East Room of the White House as his administration works to flesh out a Russian-led plan to put Syria’s chemical arms under international supervision.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said, from the same spot where he announced the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
“But this 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,” Obama said.
The president said that it was simply not an option for America not to respond to the August 21 chemical weapons attack, which Washington says killed 1,400 people.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory,” Obama said.
“But these things happened.
“The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it.
“Because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”
Obama said he understood after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Americans were weary of costly conflicts abroad — and said he was more interested in ending wars than beginning new ones.
But he said that if America did not act, chemical weapons would be used again in flagrant violations of international law.
And amid confusion about the extent of any U.S. military strike, he said that Assad would pay a heavy price if military action was used.
“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said.
The president said he would work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue a diplomatic end to the crisis, as well as with U.S. allies France and Britain.
And he said that he had also asked Congress not to vote his request to authorize military action for now, as he wanted to give diplomacy a chance.
Obama also gave an assurance that there would be no military force used until United Nations inspectors have delivered their report into what happened on August 21.