President Obama told the nation Tuesday night he has asked Congress to delay a vote on authorizing a U.S. attack on Syria. It was a dramatic reversal of his push for missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s alleged mass chemical weapons attack on its own civilians on Aug. 21. As the world, and many members of Congress, breathed a sigh of relief, Obama said he wanted to pursue Russia’s proposal to defuse the crisis.
Political analysts had been predicting an embarrassing defeat in Congress for the administration’s war measure. Many lawmakers reported they were receiving huge numbers of messages from constituents opposing U.S. military action, and none, or very few, in support. And polls have been showing an increasing majority of the public opposes military strikes, even “limited” ones in response to chemical weapons use. Even First Lady Michelle Obama opposes a U.S. military attack, her husband said on Monday.
In his speech Tuesday night Obama acknowledged the extent of public skepticism about military intervention in Syria. He continued to strongly defend the possible use of military force as a humanitarian and national security action. But, saying he had “a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions,” he said Russia’s initiative had the “potential” to resolve the chemical weapons issue peacefully. (See text of his speech here.)
Russia’s proposal is that Syria place all its chemical weapons under international control. Syria says it has accepted the plan. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria was ready to join the international Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and abide by its requirements.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russia’s foreign minister on Thursday to pursue a deal, and that he will “continue” his own talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abandoning the administration’s previous go-it-alone stance, Obama also said the U.S., UK and France, “will work together in consultation with Russia and China” on a United Nations resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons.
He also reversed course on the U.S. effort to bypass UN weapons investigators, saying, “We’ll also give UN inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st.”
The president made no mention of a deadline for diplomatic efforts. Russia has said it will veto any Security Council resolution that sets deadlines and threatens military force.
Administration officials are saying they raised similar diplomatic proposals with Russia as far back as last year. They also argue that Syria would not have agreed to the new proposal without the U.S. threat of force. Regardless, Russia’s new initiative seems to provide a classic diplomatic opening, in which all sides can claim victory, and/or save face.
Former President Jimmy Carter discussed the political dynamics in Washington on the issue in a Washington Post op ed Wednesday. Carter said opposition to any president’s policies was natural in a democracy, and in this case should not be seen as a disaster for Obama. Carter called for “an urgent effort to convene without conditions the long-delayed peace conference the United States and Russia announced in May.” He said the Russian plan, “if fully implemented … would amount to a cease-fire, with a large U.N. peacekeeping force deployed.” This could lead to convening such a peace conference, which could end the conflict, he said.
Americans opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria emphasize the importance of continuing public pressure on Congress and the White House to keep the diplomatic process going and prevent any congressional war action. Defusing the chemical weapons issue still leaves the bloody war in Syria unresolved.
In a detailed 42–page report released Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said war crimes are being committed by both sides in Syria. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry for the Syrian Arab Republic, headed by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, warned sharply against military intervention. “There is an urgent need for a cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiations, leading to a political settlement,” the UN commission said. “To elect military action in Syria will not only intensify the suffering inside the country but will also serve to keep such a settlement beyond our collective reach.”
Minnesota peace advocate Mel Duncan, who visited Syria in May and met with people on all sides of the conflict, offers a number of constructive recommendations. Duncan heads Nonviolent Peace Force, an international group whose U.S. participants include September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, among others, and is endorsed by a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Duncan says he met many Syrian civil society activists who are working on peacebuilding and reconciliation. Among his suggestions are involving such civil society leaders in the international peace process. “Chairs at negotiating tables should not be reserved exclusively for men with guns,” he says.
In addition, Duncan says, the U.S. and other countries can allow Syrians to make their peace by stopping the flow of outside weapons.
“The U.S. and Russia could lead the way in establishing a cease-fire,” he says.
Photo: President Barack Obama talks with foreign policy advisors in the Oval Office, Sept. 10, 2013. Attendees include from left: Tony Blinken, deputy national security advisor; Phil Gordon, White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region; National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice; and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. (White House/Pete Souza)