BRADENTON – A bipartisan group of eight senators and the White House joined the international community on Tuesday to move toward staving off an American military attack on Syria. Some off-handed comments by Secretary of Defense John Kerry, while speaking in the UK on Monday, may have provided the opportunity for a graceful transition toward a diplomatic, rather than military response to the alleged chemical weapons strike by the Assad regime against rebel forces within his country. Addressing the nation Tuesday night, President Obama asked Congress to delay votes on whether to authorize the use of force, while diplomatic options were considered.
While the President was busy making the case for a strike during a six-interview TV blitz on Monday, Kerry was speaking very conversationally abroad. While he was primarily working to justify strikes, his loose dialog provided an opening that the international community quickly seized upon.
The Secretary of Defense said that President Bashar al-Assad had one week to hand over his entire stock of chemical weapons in order to avoid a U.S. military attack, a statement that may not have been given with White House knowledge. Kerry added that he had no expectation the Syrian leader would comply with the demand.
Kerry further said that the U.S. had no doubt that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, and that the entire U.S. intelligence community was united in believing Assad, one of his brothers and a senior general were the only ones responsible for their deployment.
Kerry, who narrowly lost the presidential election to George Bush in 2004, was speaking alongside UK foreign secretary William Hague. The House of Commons recently voted to reject the use of UK force in Syria.
The State Department appeared to immediately walk back Kerry's deadline wording. In a statement, the department wrote: "His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That's why the world faces this moment."
However, Russia quickly answered Kerry’s statement, saying it would support the establishment of international control over Syria’s chemical weapons program.
President Obama, put on the spot by the unplanned developments, called the Russian proposal “a potentially positive development” and told CNN he would “engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”
Kerry also caused confusion when he asserted in the same dialog that the U.S was intent on an "unbelievably small" attack on Syria, which caused some Republican members of Congress to re-evaluate their support.
"We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war," said Kerry. "That is exactly what we are talking about doing, an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
The group of Senators began drafting an alternative Congressional resolution Tuesday to give the United Nations a chance to take control of the Syrian government’s stockpiles of the chemical weapons, which are banned internationally.
The Senate had been scheduled to vote Wednesday, while the House was also expected to take up the matter this week. But the President asked that they stand fast to see whether possible diplomatic options were achieved. Addressing the nation Tuesday night, Obama still made the case for strikes on Syria but asked that pending votes on the use of force be delayed. He also went to great lengths to assure Americans that a strike would not lead to a protracted conflict.
“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," said the President. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”
A vote in favor of the strikes is considered unlikely in the Republican-held House and a toss-up in the Senate, where Democrats maintain a slim majority. Invading Syria remains intensely unpopular with the American public, less than 30 percent of whom favored the airstrikes in a recent Reuters poll.