Obama orders US military to ‘maintain posture’ on Syria

Addressing the nation, the US president has asked Congress to postpone a vote on military action in Syria as diplomacy is pursued to put chemical weapons beyond the regime's reach, but called on the military to maintain pressure on the Syrian government.

In his speech the US president has reiterated that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad government’s alleged use of chemical weapons with a limited military action.

However, since over the last few days there have been a number of “encouraging signs” that the crisis could be resolved politically – “in part because of the credible threat of US military action” – the US President has asked the leaders of Congress to “postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”

US President Barack Obama (AFP Photo / Evan Vucci)

Obama spoke of the Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control as one of the reasons he was delaying a “limited strike” on Syria.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, 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.

Obama has pledged to continue discussions on the Syrian issue with President Vladimir Putin, while Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday.

France and the United Kingdom, two of the US’s closest allies, the President said, will also work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council.

“We’ll also give UN inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st,” Obama added.

However, at the beginning of his speech the President made it clear that the US has no doubts that the Syrian government was responsible for the deadly chemical attack.

“No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria… Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible,” he said, reiterating vague details of the attack outlined in the excerpts of the US intelligence report declassified earlier this month.

'Pursuing the diplomatic path'

Russia proposed placing Syria’s chemical weapons under international monitoring and eventually destroying them if all parties agree to denounce military action. China and Iran have endorsed the idea, which has appeared to gain traction since it was first proposed Monday while other members of the UN Security Council have expressed doubt over how the chemical weapons could be safely moved out of an active war zone. 

Moscow is planning to propose a UN draft resolution supporting its initiative. However, a closed door meeting of the UN Security Council initially asked for by Russia on Tuesday was postponed at Russia’s request.

Meanwhile, France was reportedly ready to table its own draft that would allow military action against Syria if the Assad government is considered uncooperative.

“It was extremely well played by the Russians, but we didn’t want someone else to go to the UN with a resolution that was weak,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters.   

An initial French draft UN Security Council resolution demanded that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons program within 15 days and immediately open all related sites to UN inspectors or otherwise face “further necessary measures” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

In this image made available by the Syrian News Agency (SANA) on March 19, 2013, medics and other masked people attend to a man at a hospital in Khan al-Assal in the northern Aleppo province, as Syria's government accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time (AFP Photo)

US lawmakers admitted their reluctance but pledged to examine the Russian idea closely. Obama asked Congress to delay voting on whether to authorize a military strike in response to the proposal.

Obama’s comments follow Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s admission that Syria would be open to turning over their chemical weapons to international control. Then, on Tuesday, Syria announced it would be willing to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, revealing all details of the chemical program. 

“We will open our storage sites, and cease production,” Muallem told Lebanon’s al-Maydeen TV. “We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations. We intend to give up chemical weapons altogether.” 

US Secretary of State John Kerry was joined at the Capitol building earlier in the day by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. The trio testified before the House Armed Services Committee and questioned on the Russian proposal, which Kerry said he regarded with a hesitant optimism while asking Congress to approve the military strike no matter what. 

“But make no mistake about why this is now even on the table,” he said. “They say nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.” 

Hagel informed the committee that the earliest a strike against Syria could take place at this time is now in mid-October.