Obama Delays Syria Strike, Heading Off Fight in Congress

Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama speaks to the nation about the conflict in Syria. He tells us why he's postponing the vote on a military strike in Syria. (Source: Bloomberg)

(Correct names in second paragraph under Classified Briefing subhead. See EXTRA for more on the Syria conflict.)

The U.S. Senate is putting off consideration of a resolution authorizing strikes against Syria to give President Barack Obama the “time and space” to pursue diplomacy with Russia, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

Obama has postponed a decision on military action against Syria, sparing himself a possible political defeat at home and plunging the U.S. into potentially protracted negotiations with a global rival.

After telling the nation 10 days ago he would ask Congress to authorize the use of military force, Obama reversed course last night in a nationally televised address and said he would pursue a proposal by Russia to have Syria surrender its stockpiles of chemical arms to international authorities.

The diplomatic initiative prompted Senate leaders to put on hold consideration of a use-of-force resolution, which lawmakers said would be a difficult vote with an uncertain outcome in a chamber where more than a third of the members were against authorization or leaning toward opposition before the president’s speech.

“Leaders in Damascus and Moscow should understand that Congress will be watching these negotiations very closely,” Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said today. If there was a sign it may be a “ploy,” the Senate would resume plans to authorize military strikes, he said.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama, center, leaves a Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10, 2013. Close

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama, center, leaves a Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10, 2013.

Geneva Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tomorrow in Geneva, and Obama said he will continue talking with President Vladimir Putin. The U.S., U.K. and France will work together at the United Nations, where there already is discord over how tough language would be in a council resolution.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council will meet today to discuss a draft resolution offered by France, according a diplomat at the world body who asked not to be identified in advance of the session.

Russia has given the U.S. a chemical weapons proposal for discussion by Kerry and Lavrov, according to a Russian official who asked not to be identified discussing internal developments.

In pursuing the Russian initiative, Obama is casting his lot with Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s primary patron, who has emerged as Obama’s chief international antagonist in his second term.

“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said in remarks from the East Room of the White House last night. The 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.”

Photographer: Evan Vucci/Pool via Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10, 2013. Close

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Photographer: Evan Vucci/Pool via Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10, 2013.

Russian Prestige

Putin’s involvement, after Russia has consistently blocked action against its ally Assad, “is significant,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today. “Russia is now putting its prestige on the line.”

Carney refused to estimate how long it would take for negotiations, logistical arrangements and technical matters. “This is a process that will take a certain amount of time but it needs to be credible, it needs to be verifiable,” he told reporters in Washington.

Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of the Senate Caucus on Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, said the Russian proposal has “some potential,” though his initial reaction was to doubt it given the “lack of credibility on the part of the Russians and the Syrian regime.”

“But let’s not kid ourselves -- the chances of this happening are a lot less than 50 percent,” he said today on CNN.

‘Stalling Tactic’

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the most prominent advocate for aiding the Syrian rebels and using U.S. strikes to help their fight, said the Russian initiative seems to be a “stalling tactic.”

“I worry we have a kind of a game of rope-a-dope for awhile and the slaughter goes on” during diplomatic negotiations over Russia’s proposal, McCain told reporters at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.

A failure to reach a disarmament agreement in the next few days “would strengthen the president’s hand to go back to Congress and say, ‘Look, I tried this avenue and it’s been rejected,’” McCain said.

House Democratic leaders also aren’t pressing for an immediate resolution, Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview after a classified briefing today on Syria. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said yesterday before Obama’s speech that “leverage” with the Russian would be “diminished” without support from Congress.

Classified Briefing

In a classified briefing for House members, administration officials said that there will be “a new series of assessments next week” after Kerry’s Geneva talks and following a report from UN weapons inspectors, according to Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat.

Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, said a use-of-force resolution would fail in the House if there were a vote today. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said he’s working on a revised resolution that would be ready if Obama again asks for authorization.

Over the past week, a majority of members in the House of Representatives came out in opposition to the president’s request for authorization for military strikes against Syria. A variety of polls show the public is opposed.

“I would be very surprised if we do take action or that a vote is ever required on this,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the House Republican leadership. “I don’t think opinion in Congress would change.”

World’s Policeman

Obama’s speech, on the eve of today’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., underscores how conflict in the region continues to dominate his foreign policy even as the president has said he wants the nation to move on from years of armed conflict.

The president spent much of his 16-minute address repeating his arguments justifying the use of force to deter any future use of chemical weapons, even as he said the U.S. can’t be “the world’s policeman.”

“When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act,” he said.

Obama emphasized his skepticism about whether Syria would comply and said he has instructed U.S. military commanders to be ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

Oil Supplies

Obama’s strategy won the endorsement of France, the principal U.S. ally in any military venture against Assad. French President Francois Hollande voiced “determination” to work through the UN Security Council while “remaining mobilized” to punish Syria for using chemical weapons, according to an e-mailed statement.

Optimism that the U.S. would avoid a new military conflict in a region that pumps about a third of global oil supplies helped send stocks higher. West Texas Intermediate rose for the first time in three days, due to supply influences. WTI for October delivery rose 40 cents to $107.79 a barrel at 1:15 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The first complications along the diplomatic path emerged yesterday. Putin set as a condition for pushing Syria to comply that the U.S. and other nations renounce using force against Assad’s regime. Putin has consistently blocked United Nations efforts to punish Assad over conduct of the two-and-a-half-year civil war as well as the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attacks near Damascus that the U.S. estimates killed more than 1,400 civilians.

War Crimes

Separately, a report by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that Assad’s forces and the rebel fighters both are guilty of committing war crimes as they carry out attacks directed against civilians, shelling villages, arson, sniper attacks and systematic executions. The report is the sixth in a series by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and draws on interviews with 259 people conducted between May and July 15.

At least eight “massacres” have been committed by the Assad regime and one by the opposition in the past year and a half, and the commission is investigating nine more suspected mass killings since March, the report said.

A separate UN team of 13 chemical weapons experts and scientists is expected to complete its report by the middle of next week on its investigation of the Aug. 21 attack.

To contact the reporters on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net; Michael C. Bender in Washington at mbender10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net; John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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