POLITICS
09/10/2013 09:29 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Obama's Speech Vows To Explore Russian Offer On Syria

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON, Sept 10 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to pursue a diplomatic initiative from Russia over Syria's chemical weapons on Tuesday but voiced skepticism about it and urged Americans to support his threat to use military force.

Obama said in a White House speech that a Russian offer to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to place chemical weapons under international control offered the possibility of heading off the type of limited military strike he is considering against Syria.

Speaking from the White House's East Room, Obama said U.S. and Russian officials would keep talking about the initiative and that he would discuss it with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, he said, he has asked the U.S. Senate to put off a vote on his request for an authorization of military force to let the diplomacy play out. He set no timetables for action, but said any deal with Assad would require verification that he keep his word.

"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."

The Russian offer put the brakes on a vote in Congress over authorizing military force as lawmakers and the administration sought more time to assess Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

Obama has faced stiff resistance in Congress to any military action and lawmakers on both sides of the issue were quick to seize on the Russian proposal as a possible way out, despite skepticism about its eventual success.

Obama used much of his speech to lay out the case against Syria, saying there was plenty of evidence showing that the Syrian government was behind an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.

He argued that Syria should face consequences for using such weapons because much of the world has long since adopted a ban on chemical weapons and that if the civilized world does nothing to respond, it will only embolden U.S. adversaries.

"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," said Obama.

A group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators began drafting a modified resolution on the use of military force that would give the United Nations time to take control of Syria's chemical weapons. (Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal.; Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

09/11/2013 6:02 PM EDT

U.S. Struggling To Destroy Its Own Chemical Weapons Stockpile

The Guardian reports that despite promising to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by 2012, the United States still has thousands of tons of lethal gas stored in facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.

According to reporter Paul Lewis, the most recent projections indicate that the weapons dump will not be complete until 2023 -- eight years after Russia said it will be fully rid of nerve agents.

"By missing its deadlines, the U.S. and other countries have arguably breached a founding principle of the same treaty cited as a reason to justify an attack on Syria," Lewis wrote.

Though Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is expected to be much smaller than those of Russia and the U.S., Lewis points out, the delays many countries have experienced in destroying their arsenals indicate the technological and political challenges likely in attempting to disarm Damascus.

Read the full story here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 5:24 PM EDT

Chomsky: 'The United States Is A Rogue State'

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky takes issue with Obama's characterization of the United States as "the anchor of global security" in Tuesday night's address.

Pointing to America's use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, as well as its role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders while ushering in dictatorships across Latin America, Chomsky fervently rejects the president's entire premise for taking military action in Syria.

"The United States is a rogue state," Chomsky said. "It doesn’t pay any attention to international law."

He notes the seeming hypocrisy in calling for Syria to adhere to internationally established norms against the possession of chemical weapons without demanding the same from other countries -- namely, Israel. (As Chomsky points out, the U.S. under Ronald Reagan vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have required all nations to observe international law.)

Chomsky sums up Obama's address thusly:

So what he said is, 'I’m going to lie like a trooper about history; I’m going to suppress the U.S. role, the actual U.S. role, for the last seven decades; I’m going to maintain the threat of force, which is, of course, illegal; and I’m going to ensure that the chemical weapons convention is not imposed on the region, because our ally, Israel, would be subjected to it.' And I think those are some of the main points of his address.

Watch the entire interview in the video below, and read the full transcript of the segment here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 5:10 PM EDT

Biden Holds Two Classified Briefings On Syria For House Republicans, Source Says

Vice President Joe Biden hosted two classified briefings in the White House Situation Room Wednesday for groups of House Republicans, an administration official confirmed to HuffPost. The meetings were not on Biden's public schedule, and according to an attendee, Syria topped the agenda.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said in a tweet this afternoon that his meeting with Biden lasted two hours, and Schock appreciated Biden's "frank discussion and personal outreach."

Just a day earlier, Schock expressed frustration with the Obama administration's shifting position on Syrian chemical weapons negotiations.

“There are so many moving parts,” Schock told Time. “The Administration’s statements continue to change over a 24-hour period. We’re going to strike, we’d like Congress’s approval, we don’t need Congress’s approval—that’s what we heard last week—to now we may not strike if Assad gives up his weapons to Russia.”

-- Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 4:29 PM EDT

Are Americans Too Desensitized To Care About Syria?

David Nakamura posits that one of the toughest challenges Obama faces is getting Americans to care about Syria -- and not simply because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Washington Post writer notes that the images of children writhing on hospital floors in the aftermath of the Aug. 21 chemical attack may not be informative or graphic enough to elicit the emotional response the administration has hoped for during its strike campaign.

Nakamura writes:

Images of dead bodies or men gasping for air and convulsing may produce a horrified reaction, but they do not necessarily explain to a viewer what happened or why, said Scott Sigmund Gartner, a scholar at Penn State University who has studied the affect of war imagery on the public.

"The images that are the most powerful tells [sic] a story that is understandable without captions, without additional explanation," Gartner said. "The images I’ve seen in the media are terrible; they are horrific. But they do not tell a story about the role of chemical weapons -- and it’s unfair to even ask ... that of an image because with chemical weapons, most of the time there’s nothing to see."

Additionally, Nakamura spoke to an expert who acknowledged that while humans are "hard-wired" to fear poisons and gases, the Syria attack videos "lack raw emotional power compared to bloodier photos and videos that the public has seen from other war zones."

Read the full story here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 3:35 PM EDT

New Details on U.S.-Russia Negotiations In Geneva

More details emerged Wednesday about Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and negotiate a plan to turn over Syria's chemical weapons to international control.

Kerry will depart late Wednesday night accompanied by a team of United States chemical weapons experts, and spend Thursday and Friday in Geneva, according to a State Department spokeswoman. He is scheduled to meet with Lavrov and with United Nations Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. There were no plans Wednesday for Kerry to meet with members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

The Geneva meetings will give the U.S. an opportunity to evaluate whether the Russian proposal is serious, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The U.S. scientists also will work with their Russian counterparts to "make this effort logistically and technically possible," Psaki said.

The safety of any weapons inspectors or removal teams while in Syria will certainly be part of the discussion, she said.

Psaki said the negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov are separate from early-stage negotiations on Syria held Wednesday in New York between representatives of the five permanent member nations on the U.N. Security Council. She acknowledged, however, that "all these pieces are linked together."

The U.N. negotiations grew tense Wednesday, when Russia rejected a proposal by France and the U.S. for a binding resolution. The resolution would strip Assad of his chemical weapons and impose "very severe consequences" if he failed to comply.

--Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 2:59 PM EDT

Team Of Chemical Weapons Specialists To Travel With Kerry To Geneva

Secretary of State John Kerry will be accompanied during his two-day trip to Geneva this week by a team of United States chemical weapons experts. The team will help Kerry negotiate the details of a Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons.

A State Department spokeswoman said the names of the experts would be released when the list was finalized, and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's counterpart in the negotiations, also will bring a team of scientists and specialists to the meeting.

Despite a bumpy road ahead for any multinational agreements on Syria's chemical weapons, the inclusion of logistics experts and scientists in what was initially called a diplomatic mission underscores how far the U.S. and Russia have come toward an agreement in just 72 hours.

-- Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 1:50 PM EDT

Report: All Five Permanent Members Of UN Security Council To Meet Today On Syria

09/11/2013 1:45 PM EDT

John Boehner's Syria Stance Not Playing Well Back Home

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared early on his support for President Barack Obama's plan to take military action in Syria. But according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, that position is not playing well in Boehner's Republican district back in Ohio:

One political expert said Boehner’s support might cost him votes next session for Speaker of the House, but he doubts it would oust him from Congress.

Of the 20 people the Enquirer approached about Boehner, some didn’t even know who he was, much less what was his stance on an attack on Syria.

Other opinions ranged from applauding him for at least making a decision to questions about whether he’s still a conservative. One person said he staunchly agrees with what Boehner did and that politics shouldn’t be involved.

Patricia Harmon, 49, of Middletown, suggested Boehner was a turncoat.

“I thought he didn’t like Democrats. Why is he all of a sudden backing the president?” she said.

-- Amanda Terkel

09/11/2013 12:09 PM EDT

Damascus Residents Line Up For Passports

Despite President Obama's call for Congress to delay a vote on a military strike against Syria, dozens of Syrians lined up in Damascus for passports to leave the country. Reuters reports that many residents of the Syrian capital appear wary of current negotiations at the U.N. to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

"We just decided it was time we got passports for the whole family," Raghad, a mother of three in her thirties, told Reuters. Raghad explained that while the family would not need a passport to cross the border into neighboring Lebanon, it would require documents to leave for a third country. "Now with all this news, what if we went to Lebanon and couldn't return? We need passports in case we have no choice but to travel to a third country," Raghad said. "For now, based on the latest news, we're staying until something changes."

Read the full story here.

09/11/2013 11:51 AM EDT

Israel: Syria Must Be Stripped Of Chemical Weapons

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, Reuters reports:

Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, who is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.

Read the full story here.

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