WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama postponed his threat to strike Syria, after Bashar al-Assad’s regime welcomed a Russian plan to gather and destroy its chemical arsenal.
In an address from the White House, Obama said he had asked US lawmakers to delay a vote on whether to authorize military action while Washington studies the Russian initiative.
He said he would stay in personal contact with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for talks on Thursday with his Russian counterpart.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” a somber Obama warned.
“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 US cruise missile destroyers would remain stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, ready to administer a punitive strike.
“The US military doesn’t do pinpricks,” he said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
But compared to the rhetoric of recent weeks, when Pentagon officials told reporters that a salvo of missiles could be fired within days, the speech was a clear pivot towards diplomacy.
Obama made his threat of strikes in response to an attack on August 21, when Syrian forces allegedly killed 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus using sarin gas.
He defended the military option again Tuesday in an emotional passage about the horrors of the massacre, and said allowing a dictator to use chemical arms would threaten US security.
But he gave an assurance that there would be no military force used until United Nations weapons inspectors have delivered their report into what happened.
In the meantime, Syria has promised to renounce chemical weapons.
Seizing on a plan by its Russian ally for its nerve gas arsenal to be taken under international control, it said it would sign the UN treaty banning chemical arms.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told Russia’s Interfax news agency: “We are ready to state where the chemical weapons are, to halt production of chemical weapons and show these installations to representatives of Russia, other countries and the UN.”
“We want to join the chemical weapons ban treaty. We will respect our commitments in relation to the treaty, including providing information on these weapons.”
Syria is one of only seven UN member states not already party to the 1993 “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.”