Obama postpones Syrian strike, dispatches Kerry to negotiate resolution with Russia

President Barack Obama yesterday asked Congress to delay a vote to authorize military strikes against Syria in light of Russia’s surprise offer to persuade Damascus to turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international control.

In a televised address, Obama called the latest developments “encouraging” and announced his decision to give Russia and the United Nations Security Council more time to “pursue this diplomatic path”.

Read more: U.S. agrees to work with Russia on U.N. resolution to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control

“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,” said Obama.

On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem announced that Syria will accept Russia’s proposal to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to international inspectors and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons and also show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations,” Moallem declared.

Moallem’s concessions came after months of staunch denials of the existence or use of chemical weapons by Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Assad. He emphasized that Syria is supporting Russia’s proposal to prevent U.S. “aggression”.

Read more: Russia supports U.S. call for Syria to turn over chemical weapons to international community for dismantling

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday and Friday to work out a deal. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Geneva meeting will “test the seriousness” of Russia’s proposal and to discuss “the specifics of how this would get done, what are the mechanics of identifying, verifying, securing, and ultimately destroying the chemical weapons”. 

If the pair are able to reach an agreement, then the U.S. will work with Russia and China to draft a Security Council resolution to authorize the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. (Russia and China, both with veto power, have steadfastly blocked nearly all Security Council resolutions – and even press releases – pertaining to Syria.)

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “welcomes” the efforts by United States and Russia to find a diplomatic solution.

“He hopes the US-Russian meetings later this week will be productive in moving toward a process for addressing the Syrian chemical weapons threat which all parties will be committed to,” the U.N. spokesperson said. “The confirmed use of chemical weapons would be an outrageous crime for which there must be accountability and determined efforts to prevent any recurrence.”

Stressing that the renewed diplomatic efforts by Russia was prompted by “the credible threat of U.S. military action,” Obama said the U.S. must continue to apply pressure on Syria to follow through and cooperate with the international community to dispose its chemical weapons stockpile.

“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,” said Obama.

According to the U.S. intelligence community, the Aug. 21st chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta – just east of Damascus – killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 400 children. Kerry testified last week that biological samples collected from first responders in Syria tested positive for traces of sarin – a deadly nerve agent. Because of their abilities to inflict indiscriminate mass casualties, chemical weapons have been banned by the international community for nearly a century.

U.S. intelligence officials assessed with “high confidence” that the chemical weapons attacks were carried out by Assad’s forces, marking a dramatic escalation in the 2.5-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and forced more than 2 million Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

Obama insisted that such atrocity and blatant violation of international law cannot go unaddressed and argued failure to act will threaten U.S. security and that of allies in the Middle East, including Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.

“If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians,” said Obama. “If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon, or to take a more peaceful path.”

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