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President Barack Obama used a primetime televised address Tuesday to make a case for a U.S. military strike on Syria, even while he requested that Congress delay a vote to authorize such a move to pursue a diplomatic solution.
The U.S. will work with Russia and China in offering a U.N. Security Council resolution to require the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up and destroy its chemical weapons under international oversight, Obama said. Secretary of State John Kerry with meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Thursday to discuss the matter, he said.
"I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path," Obama said during a 15-minute speech from the East Room of the White House.
The announcement signaled a shift in the White House's approach on Syria. Administration officials in recent weeks pressed lawmakers to quickly authorize a limited air strike against Syria in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians. The Senate had scheduled a vote on the issue for Wednesday.
The Syrian regime allegedly killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, in an Aug. 21 gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus, according to an unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment of the incident.
Testifying earlier in the day to House lawmakers, Kerry warned that Russia's plan can't be a "delaying tactic." The former senator from Massachusetts first raised the possibility of placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control during a press conference Monday in London. Russia and Syria quickly embraced the idea.
During his speech, Obama said he would give U.N. inspectors more time to complete their report on the Aug. 21 sarin gas deaths in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
Obama recognized the difficulty in making a pitch for a punitive strike on Syria to a war-weary American public.
"First, many of you have asked me, ‘Won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war?' he said. "One man wrote to me that we are still recovering from our involvement in Iraq. A veteran put it more bluntly – ‘This nation is sick and tired of war.'
"My answer is simple," he said. "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo."
The mission would be limited and with the objective of deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities, Obama said. He dismissed a criticism voiced by some in Congress that "there's no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria."
"Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn't do pinpricks," he said.
Despite his reference to pursuing a diplomatic path in Syria, Obama spent much of his speech making the case for a military strike against the country.
He repeated the allegations made in the official U.S. assessment of the chemical attack, saying the U.S. is confident that Syrian government forces fired rockets loaded with sarin gas, killing more than a thousand men, women and children.
Assad has denied the claims. A Jordanian journalist who went to Ghouta after the attacks reported that rebels he interviewed took responsibility for the deaths, saying they mishandled sarin-laden weapons they had been given by the Saudis.
The White House declined to address that claim directly when asked. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said the administration "laid out a very clear case for why it is our high confidence assessment that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21."
The UN has also previously collected evidence showing that rebels have used gas.
What had been looming as a full-court press to rally Congress for a strike took a dramatic turn in the past two days after Kerry suggested in an off-hand manner that the crises could be defused if Syria turned over its chemical stockpiles to international authorities.
Russia, which has long supported Syria and sold arms to the Assad regime, seized on the remark and quickly pushed for a possible deal. France, the only country that had been openly backing a U.S.-led strike against Syria, then backpedaled in favor a diplomatic solution.
Obama said it's "too early to tell whether this offer will succeed," but acknowledged the initiative has the potential to eliminate the threat of chemical weapons without military action.
"Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails," he said.
The Navy has four destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the USS Stout, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Gravely. The amphibious assault ship USS San Antonio is also in the Med on routine port visit to Haifa, Israel, according to a Defense Department official who asked to remain anonymous to freely discuss ship locations.
The Nimitz carrier strike group is in the Red Sea. In addition to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which holds some 80 aircraft, the strike group includes three destroyers, the USS William P. Lawrence, the USS Stockdale and the USS Shoup, as well as the cruiser USS Princeton.
Obama's East Room speech follows an all-out effort by him and members of his administration to win congressional backing for a strike on Syria.
On Monday, Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Susan Rice held separate briefings for all members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Rice also met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, hosted separate briefings for groups of Democrat and Republican senators in the White House Situation Room, and National Security Advisor Denis McDonough did the same for Democrat and GOP House members.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama met had lunch with the Senate Democrat Caucus to nail down support while McDonough spoke with members of the House Democrat Caucus.
Kerry, Hagel and Rice and other administration officials are expected to meet brief all members of the Senate on Wednesday.
Obama's call for a postponement of a vote authorizing the use of force in Syria will probably be welcomed by lawmakers in Congress, where both Republicans and Democrats have shown little enthusiasm for a military intervention in Syria.
The administration was so worried about getting the congressional backing that it openly asked the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee – one of the most formidable lobbying groups in Washington – to call on lawmakers to support an action.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are among those who support a military strike on the Syrian regime and better arming the rebels.
In a joint statement after Obama's speech, the two said they regretted "that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army.
"We also regret 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," they said.
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