President Barack Obama made his case Tuesday night both for military intervention and diplomacy to address the crisis in Syria, all part of a speech that made international strikes appear less imminent but not an end to the Middle Eastern nation’s years of carnage.
Tuesday’s developments – including Syria agreeing to a Russian plan to give up its chemical weapons – appeared to move the world further away from a more regional war. Yet many roadblocks and pressing questions remain as to what’s next for Syria, where the civil war that’s left over 100,000 dead continues to rage.
• Obama said Tuesday night that military strikes against Syrian forces would be justified, given the indications he pointed to that the Damascus government planned and then executed a horrific chemical weapons attack on a rebel stronghold that left hundreds dead.
• The U.S. president also referred to positive developments diplomatically – namely, a Russian-led effort to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons – that led him to encourage Congress not to vote yet on authorizing military intervention in Syria.
• Immediately after Obama’s speech, Syrian state TV reported that the president had urged Congress to postpone any vote on a strike and was focused more on diplomatic efforts to deal with the crisis.
• While previous polls indicated strong opposition to military strikes, a CNN/ORC International survey of speech-watchers conducted immediately after Obama’s Tuesday address found that 61% support the president’s position of giving more time for diplomatic efforts to work before moving forward with military strikes.
• Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Tuesday, before leaving Moscow, that his government is “ready to fully cooperate” with a Russian initiative that would include Damascus joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and turning over its chemical weapons.
“We are ready to disclose the location(s) of chemical weapons, stop manufacturing chemical weapons, also show the locations to representatives from Russia and other countries and the U.N.,” Moallem said in his remarks, as translated from Arabic.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that the plan to avert an international military strike in Syria by having Syria’s government hand over its chemical weapons “will only mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria.”
The Russian leader added, “You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.”
• In a televised speech Tuesday night, President Obama said “the situation (in Syria) profoundly changed on August 21,” referring to a chemical weapons attack he blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
• With that attack, Syria’s government violated the “basic rules” of warfare, Obama said. “The facts cannot be denied,” he added. “The question now is what the United States of America (will) do about it.”
• The U.S. president accused Syrian forces of preparing for the August 21 attacks, passing out gas masks, then firing rockets into a rebel stronghold outside Damascus.
• “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said. He also vowed not to “pursue an open-ended action” in the war-torn country.
• At the same time, the president insisted “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks” – a term used often by members of his administration in recent days, addressing concerns that a military strike on Syria would have minimal impact.” “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad,” Obama said, “that no other nation can deliver.”
• Targeted military strikes against Syria would serve several purposes, including deterring Syria’s government from using chemical weapons, making it more difficult for them to do so and making clear to the world that the use of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated, Obama said.
• President Barack Obama pointed Tuesday night to “encouraging signs” in diplomatic efforts to address the crisis in Syria, crediting these “in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action.” These efforts could include Syria handing over its chemical weapons, a move that Obama said has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without military intervention.
• The United States and its military will “be in position to respond if diplomacy fails” to address the crisis in Syria, Obama said, not ruling out military intervention in the war-torn country.
• Responding to the speech, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus responded with blanket condemnation of Obama’s policies, saying “the administration’s handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it’s disappointed even the president’s most ardent supporters.”
• Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain – both of whom have pushed for more U.S. military involvement in Syria – expressed “regret” that the president “did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces” and that he “did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody.”
• The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a left-leaning advocacy group that has been opposed to military action in Syria, focused on Obama’s opening the door to diplomacy as “a credible and strategic option,” which shows that “public pressure worked.”
• Kerry and Lavrov have been appointed by their respective presidents as the point people on the Syrian chemical weapons issue, a senior U.S. administration official said Tuesday. The two diplomats have talked nine times since the August 21 attack in the Damascus area.
• U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will bring a team of experts with him for talks, beginning Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, senior State Department officials said Tuesday. Another U.S. official said this group will include weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons experts from the U.S. military. The Kerry-Lavrov meeting will include several sessions spread across two days, officials said, cautioning that the issue may not be resolved by then.
If and when an accord is reached, it will be included as part of a U.N. Security Council resolution, according to the officials.
• When the two diplomats meet, the Obama administration’s position will be that “we need a verifiable process under international control with timelines and modalities worked out with the Russians and through the United Nations,” a second senior administration official said.
• Russia will propose a U.N. draft declaration backing an initiative to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. Lavrov has told France that its own draft resolution holding the Syrian government responsible for the use of chemical weapons is “unacceptable.”
• France is planning to offer a five-point U.N. Security Council resolution, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. The points include condemning the August 21 massacre, having Syria shed light on its weapons of mass destruction and placing them under international control, having international inspections, forcing Syria to face severe consequences if it violates its obligations, and submitting the perpetrators of the August 21 massacre to international justice.
• Putin said the United States and its allies should “pledge to renounce the use of force” as world powers work to deal with the Syrian chemical weapons issue. “It is difficult to make any country – Syria or any other country in the world – to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration,” he told Russian TV on Tuesday.
• French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Obama agreed Tuesday to work together to explore the Russian proposal seriously, a White House official said. The talks will begin in earnest at the United Nations later Tuesday and will include a discussion on a potential U.N. Security Council resolution.
• The opposition Syrian Coalition said Tuesday that the Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control “is a political strategy that aims to stall for more time” and “does not address the issue of accountability for crimes against innocents.”
• The Gulf Cooperation Council – a coalition that consists of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait – expressed pessimism Tuesday that Russia’s proposal on chemical weapons would have a major impact. “All the talks were about one subject, which is chemical weapons,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said. “But that doesn’t stop the spilling of blood, (and it) will not help the Syrian people.”
• Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader Al-Halqi said Damascus supports the Russian initiative, Syria state TV reported. The plan “aims to stop the Syrian bloodshed and prevent a war,” Al-Halqi said. “Yesterday we held a very fruitful round of talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and from his side, there was a proposal for an initiative relating to chemical weapons. And by evening (Monday) we agreed to the Russian initiative,” Moallem said. He said Syria had agreed because it would “remove grounds for American aggression.”
• Russia said it’s working on a plan for Syria to hand over chemical weapons. “We, the Russian side, are currently engaged in the preparation of a workable, clear, specific plan for which – literally this minute – we are in contact with the Syrian side,” Lavrov said. “We expect to present this plan in the near future and are prepared to refine and work it out with the participation of the U.N. secretary-general, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and with the participation of the members of the Security Council.”
• Kerry said Tuesday that Russia’s foreign minister is sending along “some interesting observations about the ways in which he thinks we might be able to achieve” having Syria turn over its chemical weapons. Speaking in a Google+ Hangout, Kerry said the fact Syria’s president “has been running a highly controlled and very hierarchical process” leads Washington to believe that Syria’s government “can control access to these sites.”
• China welcomes and supports Russia’s proposal to have Syria hand over chemical weapons to international control, the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.
• Iran said it welcomes the Russian initiative for Syria “to put a halt to militarism in the region,” according to a banner on state-run Press TV’s website.
• Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – whose nation has been a longtime ally of Syria and staunch adversary of the United States, which has led efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear program – said Tuesday on Press TV that Iran is willing to do whatever it can to prevent a broader regional war he surmised would be “very dangerous … first of all for those who would initiate that war.” Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear as well as chemical weapons, Rouhani said, “We would like to see a WMD-free region, including chemical weapons.”
• Russia has withdrawn its request for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on the Syrian crisis that had been set for later Tuesday afternoon, a U.N. diplomat said. Russia, which has been a key player in efforts to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, dropped its request due to “changing circumstances,” according to the diplomat.
• France had planned to go to the Security Council on Tuesday with its proposal for Syria to hand over and destroy its chemical weapons, Fabius said. He said France will not accept “delaying tactics.” It was not clear how the cancellation of Tuesday afternoon’s meeting affected the French approach, if at all.
• There are consultations with France and others about how to move quickly at the United Nations to test whether Russia and Syria are serious about the initiative to place chemical weapons under international control, a senior U.S. administration official said.
• Obama and Putin, despite their chilly relationship, have been talking for roughly a year about the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, a senior U.S. administration official said Tuesday.
• Eight more countries have signed onto a statement to “support efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” the White House announced Tuesday. Georgia, Guatemala, Kuwait, Malta, Montenegro, Panama, Poland and Portugal join 25 other countries in agreeing to the joint statement.
• A 22-year-old man died Tuesday in southern Turkey during a clash between police in that country and demonstrators rallying against the prospect of a broader international war in neighboring Syria, his mother said. Police released video showing protesters throwing stones at armored vehicles from rooftops, yet witnesses claimed Ahmet Atakan – who is an Alawite, the same Muslim sect as Syria’s leadership – died after being shot in the head with a tear gas canister.
• As the diplomatic debate continued to rage about what to do regarding Syria, the death toll in the war-ravaged nation rose. According to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria, 76 deaths were reported Tuesday around the country, including seven children and five women. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have died since the civil war began in 2001, with more than 2 million people crossing borders as refugees and another 4.25 million displaced within Syria.
U.S. Congress and government
• The Syrian regime has “about 1,000 metric tons of numerous chemical agents, binary components, including finished sulfur, mustard, binary components for sarin and VX,” Kerry told a House committee on Tuesday. “Most of that is in the form of unmixed binary components, probably stored mostly in tanks. But they also possess sarin-filled munitions and other things I can’t go into here.”
• A White House official told CNN that since August 23, the Obama administration has had discussions with at least 93 senators and more than 350 House members regarding Syria. In addition to the president’s efforts and his much-anticipated speech on Syria scheduled for Tuesday night, Vice President Joe Biden met with a group of House Republicans and House Democrats at the White House, the official said.
• Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi said the Russian plan has “given the president a victory” and said White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has told House Democrats, “if it is serious, if it is credible, if it is real, will be given every consideration.” Democratic leaders say the plan doesn’t take the wind out of the administration’s efforts but “validates what the president is doing,” Pelosi said.
• U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman met Tuesday with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss Moscow’s proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, the California Democrat said. Sherman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the meeting informative and said he believes “the Russian proposal deserves very serious attention to develop the details needed to carry it out.”
• A White House official said the feeling inside the White House is that, given the Russian proposal on Syria’s chemical weapons, there is now less urgency for a vote on taking action against the country. However, White House officials believe their position has been strengthened since Syria embraced the Russian proposal to place the country’s chemical weapons under international control. At this point, White House officials believe they can let diplomacy take its course, the official said.
• In meetings with Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans – each lasting more than an hour – President Obama asserted that U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for a large-scale chemical weapons attack on August 21 outside Damascus, a White House official said.
While reiterating his position that a targeted military strike (without having troops set foot in Syria) was in the national security interests of the United States, the president said that his administration would work to pursue the diplomatic option put forward by Russia, which would involve Syria handing over its chemical weapons, the official said.
• Obama stressed during those meetings with U.S. senators the need to keep open the option of a military strike against Syria, said Sen. Tom Carper. According to the Delaware Democrat, Obama spoke for 10 to 12 minutes, then fielded questions from about 15 senators.
“If we don’t keep that threat open,” Carper said in summarizing the president, “they may very well walk away.”
After the same meeting, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, said she felt Obama is working towarda successful diplomatic resolution that would culminate in the documented destruction of the Syrian government’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
• Kerry said Tuesday that the use of force “absolutely should not be off the table” in Congress despite the Russian proposal. But he told House lawmakers that when and how is up to Obama. “The Senate has made a decision to hold off to see if there are any legs in this Russia proposal,” Kerry said, referring to the postponement of a procedural vote scheduled for Wednesday.
• Speaking later Tuesday in the Google+ Hangout, the secretary of state acknowledged that “some things” from the U.S. government have not gotten to opponents of Syria’s al-Assad “as rapidly as one would have hoped.” Without detailing what items were heading toward what he called “the moderate opposition,” Kerry said “many of the items that people complained were not getting to them are now getting to them.”
• Under a new resolution being proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, Obama would have 30 days to work out a “credible plan” regarding Syria’s chemical weapons before he’d be allowed to order strikes, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
• Explaining the evolving timing of U.S. Senate votes on Syria in light of recent developments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reiterated Tuesday, “It’s important that we do this well, not quickly.” The Nevada Democrat added that “the credible threat of our doing something about this (chemical weapons) attack is going to remain.”
Reid’s comments came after Obama asked Senate Democrats to delay voting on authorizing military action in Syria while the diplomatic process works itself out, according to senators in the meeting. The president “asked for some time to work things out – a matter of days into next week,” Sen. Dick Durbin said.
• Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Tuesday evening that he is canceling a briefing on Syria that had been planned for Wednesday for all senators, explaining that there are just too many moving targets at the moment.
• Sen. Joe Manchin – a West Virginia Democrat who last week had pushed an initiative to put off military action while demanding Syria signs an international convention against chemical weapons – said Tuesday that he is “encouraged” that Syria’s government has decided to sign on to such an agreement. “I have said from the start that being a superpower means more than super-military might; it means super-diplomacy and super-restraint,” Manchin said in a statement.
• A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is working on an alternative resolution that would set key benchmarks to be met in order to avoid a military strike against Syria, according to a source familiar with the talks.
• Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Kerry told lawmakers that a “credible threat of force” in recent weeks has for the “first time” prompted the Syrian regime “to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal.” He added that a Russian proposal to turn over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile can’t be a process for “delay” or “avoidance.”
• Kerry also warned the committee that Iran, a close ally of Syria, “looms out there with its nuclear program.” “They are watching what we do here. If we choose not to act, we will be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness,” he said.
• U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday that he believes there needs to be a detailed timeline for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. Referring to the Moscow-led efforts calling for such a transfer in the face of threatened U.S.-led military strikes in Syria, Kinzinger said, “It’s important to understand that the Russians may be trying to stall here.”
• The top-ranking Republican in the Senate said Tuesday that he will vote against authorizing military action against Syria. “A vital national security risk is clearly not at play. There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a speech on the floor of the Senate.
• On CNN’s “New Day,” Sen. John McCain upbraided the Obama administration’s discussions of Syria. “There’s a degree of incoherence that I have never seen the likes of,” the Arizona Republican said. He noted that Kerry said any strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small.” “What does that mean?” McCain asked. “We still haven’t determined what the goal of these military strikes are.”
• Frederic Hof, who served as a special adviser to Obama on Syria during its ongoing civil war, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he’s a “bit skeptical” of the Russian proposal on chemical weapons, further pointing out that Monday was the first day Syria’s government ever admitted to having such an arsenal.
In his speech Tuesday night, “The president absolutely has to get across (the point) that diplomacy is not possible without the credible use of force remaining on the table,” said Hof, now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank. “Absent that, the Russian proposal will go away.”
• While U.S. forces are in position and capable of striking immediately, the Pentagon needs more guidance from President Barack Obama about time frames for a possible strike against Syria, a senior U.S. military official said.
The official noted that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz can’t stay in the Red Sea much longer as it is already overdue to go home, while destroyer ships in the area will also need to be switched out. “The question is how long do we stay at a certain … high-readiness level,” the official said.
American public opinion
• A new national poll suggests that as Obama prepares to tell a skeptical American public why the United States should take military action against Syria, he’s partly to blame for the box into which he’s put himself.
• The CNN/ORC International Poll indicates that Americans are divided evenly on whether Obama is a strong leader as well as whether he’s honest and trustworthy.
• The poll also found that one in five said they completely understand Obama’s Syria policy. A little more than half said they “somewhat” understand the administration’s game plan, and about three in 10 said they are not clear about the administration’s strategy or don’t understand it at all.
CNN’s Joe Sterling contributed to this report.