In an address from the White House, Obama said he had asked US 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 cautious 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 US cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike. "The US 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.
Obama 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 US 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.
This change of direction of the debate and set diplomatic wires aglow from Moscow and London to Washington and Damascus. All sides could theoretically call it a victory. Assad would win time; Russia could present itself as a peacemaker. And for Obama, it would be a way out of the impasse into which he has maneuvered himself. The already weak support in Congress for American military strikes has further dwindled recently. Likewise, the US population is becoming more skeptical; surveys show that a majority are strongly opposed.
The latest initiative was triggered in London where Kerry met his British counterpart William Hague on Monday. At a subsequent news conference Kerry gave the following answer when a reporter asked whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a military strike:
"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
It appeared to be a spontaneous, off-the-cuff remark rather than an official ultimatum. Even the State Department backtracked, saying Kerry's statement was "rhetorical and hypothetical." But then Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pounced on the idea. "We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only to agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Lavrov said, according to the website of Russian TV network RT.
This apparently uncoordinated initiative fuelled speculation that this was merely a feint by Syria and Russia. But Obama revealed in his address that he had already discussed the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putun at last week's G-20 summit. Indeed diplomats had been discussing the proposal for weeks.
Two senators had already formulated a similar resolution in Washington. Democrats Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp proposed giving Assad a 45-day deadline to sign the convention on chemical weapons. Obama would get the same deadline to present Congress with a new political peace strategy for Syria.
So it's possible that Kerry jumped the gun by openly talking about an idea that hadn't been fleshed out yet. But after his remark in London, the idea took on a life of its own. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the proposal and offered to make the UN system available to implement it. Even Hillary Clinton, Kerry's predecessor as Secretary of State, got involved. After a meeting with Obama in the White House she called the proposal an "important step" -- a term that had obviously been agreed with Obama in advance.
Other officials remain skeptical, though. Deputy US National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken pointed out that Syria had been refusing to sign the chemical weapons convention "for 20 years." Implementing the new proposal would "take time, resources and a peaceful environment," he said. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney also said he was "very skeptical."
There's certainly cause for doubt. No one knows whether Syria would just be accepting the proposal to gain time. Experts also doubt whether controlling Syria's chemical weapons arsenal -- possibly under the auspices of the UN -- would even be possible. But also the fact that the US only knows the location of just 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria.
Previous UN weapons agreements, such as those made with Iraq and Iran, could serve as a basis for a Syrian deal. But they haven't exactly been great success stories.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: CNN-US President Barack Obama-addressing the nation on Tuesday.