WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama postponed his threat to strike Syria, after Bashar al-Assad’s regime welcomed a Russian plan to gather and destroy its chemical arsenal.
In an address from the White House, Obama said he had asked lawmakers to delay a vote on whether to authorize military action while Washington studies the Russian initiative.
He said he would stay in personal contact with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for talks on Thursday with his Russian counterpart.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” a somber Obama warned, “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 U.S. cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike.
“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks,” he said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
But compared to the rhetoric of recent weeks, when Pentagon officials told reporters that a salvo of missiles could be fired within days, the speech was a clear pivot towards diplomacy.
Obama made his threat of strikes in response to an attack on August 21, when Syrian forces allegedly killed 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus using sarin gas.
He defended the military option again Tuesday in an emotional passage about the horrors of the massacre, and said allowing a dictator to use chemical arms would threaten national security.
But he gave an assurance that there would be no military force used until United Nations weapons inspectors have delivered their report into what happened.
Congress — broadly opposed military action — appeared unmoved by Obama’s speech, reiterating concerns that strikes could eventually broaden into a wider involvement.
“He’s got to make it clear to me … that this is not going to mushroom into something else,” House Democrat Elijah Cummings said.
In the meantime, Syria has promised to renounce chemical weapons.
Seizing on a plan by its Russian ally for its nerve gas arsenal to be taken under international control, it said it would sign the UN treaty banning chemical arms.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told Russia’s Interfax news agency: “We are ready to state where the chemical weapons are, to halt production of chemical weapons and show these installations to representatives of Russia, other countries and the UN.”
He added: “We want to join the chemical weapons ban treaty. We will respect our commitments in relation to the treaty, including providing information on these weapons.”
Syria is one of only seven UN member states not already party to the 1993 “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.”
Signatories are supposed to destroy any chemical weapons under their control and to allow UN inspectors access to their sites.
Putin, Assad’s most powerful foreign ally, said the Syrian offer could end the crisis, but only if the United States withdraws its threat to take punitive action.
“It all makes sense and can work if the U.S. side and all those who support it renounce the use of force,” Putin said, according to Russian television. “It is difficult to constrain Syria or another country to disarm unilaterally while military action against that country is being prepared.”
Kerry, taking part in an online discussion hosted by Google+, urged Assad to seize the chance for peace.
“Help us in the next days working with Russia to work out the formula by which those weapons can be transferred to international control and destroyed,” he pleaded.
Kerry is to discuss the crisis on Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
The Secretary of State said he had already discussed Russia’s disarmament plan with Lavrov by telephone and, while Washington remains cautious, he said he found the ideas interesting.
“If we can in fact secure all of the chemical weapons in Syria through this method, clearly that’s by far the most preferable, and would be a very significant achievement,” he said.
Washington’s allies France and Britain said they were drawing up a tough UN resolution that would authorize enforcement action if Syria failed to hand over its weapons.
“It will provide for extremely serious consequences in the event of Syria violating its obligations,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said it would contain strict timetables.
“This is not about… monitoring chemical weapons in Syria. It’s got to be about handing them over to international control and their destruction,” he said.
The crisis flared when Assad’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests in March 2011, which further spiraled into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.