By Stephanie Nebehay and Louis Charbonneau
GENEVA/UNITED NATIONS, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Diplomatic efforts toward placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control intensified on Wednesday and U.N. investigators concluded Syrian government forces were almost certainly responsible for two May massacres that killed up to 450 civilians in the bloody civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone, the State Department said in Washington, one day before they meet in Geneva to try to agree a joint strategy on eliminating Syria's chemical arsenal.
In New York, envoys from the five permanent U.N. Security Council member states - the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia - were due to meet to discuss the Russian plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to give up its chemical weapons.
U.S., French and British diplomats conferred before the five-way talks, trying to come up with common language for a resolution. An initial French draft, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, called for giving Assad an ultimatum to hand over his chemical weapons or face punitive measures, an approach Russia rejects.
The three Western powers are now trying to combine various drafts to come up with one they all can agree on before presenting it to Russia and China. "I think we'll come to an agreement (among the three Western powers)," a diplomat from one of the three nations said on condition of anonymity.
President Barack Obama said in a speech on Tuesday that he had asked Congress to put off a vote on his request to authorize military action in Syria to let diplomacy play out, although he still said the threat was needed to ensure Syria complies.
Obama cited "encouraging signs" in recent days, in part because of the U.S. threat of military action to punish Assad for what the United States and other Western powers say was the Syrian government's use of poison gas to kill 1,400 civilians in Damascus on Aug. 21. Assad's government blames the attack on the rebel forces.
"We are doing the responsible thing here which is testing the potential there for success," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, referring to the diplomatic push. "I suspect this will take some time," he added.
U.S. lawmakers said the Senate could start voting as soon as next week on a resolution to authorize military force if efforts to find a diplomatic solution fail. Obama has struggled for support in Congress for the plan.
Kerry also planned to meet U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi while in Geneva, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. At least two days of U.S.-Russian talks are expected there, possibly more, Psaki said.
Russia has given the United States its plan for placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under international control and intends to discuss it at the Geneva meeting, the Interfax news agency cited a Russian source as saying.
Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer during the civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011, delivering arms and - with China - blocking three U.N. resolutions meant to pressure Assad. Syria accepted a Russian proposal on Tuesday to give up chemical weapons.
In a reminder of the mounting atrocities in Syria, a report by a U.N. commission of inquiry released in Geneva documented eight mass killings, attributing all but one to Assad's forces.
The U.N. report, largely covering incidents between May and July, said government and rebel fighters committed war crimes including murder, hostage-taking and shelling of civilians. It accused forces loyal to Assad of bombing schools and hospitals, and rebels of carrying out summary executions.
The commission, led by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, urged the U.N. Security Council to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The May killings in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa, two pockets of rebel sympathizers surrounded by villages loyal to Assad on the outskirts of the town of Banias, did not involve fighting with rebels and appeared designed to send a message of deterrence.
In Baida, the report said between 150 and 250 civilians were allegedly killed, including 30 women, apparently executed, found in one house. It said armed rebels were not then active in the area. It gave a figure of 150 to 200 dead in Ras al-Nabaa.
The Syria conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad and descended into a civil war in which mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are pitted against Assad's forces, who are backed by Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Hezbollah.
In Moscow, Russia's parliament urged the United States not to strike Syria, saying in a unanimous declaration that military action could be a "crime against the Syrian people."
The non-binding declaration by the State Duma, the lower chamber dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, echoed the vociferous opposition by President Vladimir Putin to U.S. military action.
The Duma expressed support for Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical arsenal under international control, which Putin said on Tuesday would only succeed if the United States and its allies abandoned plans for possible military action.
The French government said it remained determined to punish Assad over chemical weapons if diplomacy fails, and called a military strike still possible.
The violence continued inside Syria. Fighters from an al Qaeda-linked rebel group killed 12 members of the minority Alawite sect in central Syria after seizing their village, an opposition monitoring group said.
Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shi'ite Islam and have been increasingly targeted by radical fighters among the Sunni Muslim-dominated opposition in the 2-1/2 year revolt against Assad, himself an Alawite.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on the United States and Russia to address the obstacles to delivering aid in Syria at their talks on Thursday.
Syrian government forces and rebels are both preventing medical assistance in particular from reaching the sick and wounded, ICRC President Peter Maurer said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept up pressure for action, saying Syria must be stripped of its chemical weapons and that the international community must make sure those who use weapons of mass destruction pay a price.
Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, which is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.
"The message that is received in Syria will be received loudly in Iran," Netanyahu said.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that a U.S. promise to pursue diplomacy to remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria was "serious and not a game with the media," the state news agency IRNA reported. (Reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut, Marcus George in Dubai, Louis Charbonneau in New York, Susan Heavey, Tabassum Zakaria and Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by David Storey)
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
<blockquote>“Tonight, President Obama made a principled presentation to the American people as to how the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons impacts our national security and why the regime must be held responsible for the reprehensible gassing of more than a thousand people, including hundreds of children. “The President using the credible threat of American military action to bring diplomatic solutions back to the table demonstrates the strength of his leadership and his willingness to exhaust every remedy before the use of force. “As the Obama Administration continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution, the President justly made clear tonight that the threat of military action remains on the table as we continue to work to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, a pillar of our national security.”</blockquote>
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
<blockquote>“We appreciate the President speaking directly to the American people about the conflict in Syria. We regret, however, that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army. We also regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody. “Such a plan would require the United States, together with our friends and allies, to immediately introduce a tough U.N. Security Council Resolution that lays out what steps Syria would have to take to give up its chemical weapons, including making a full and accurate declaration of all of its chemical weapons and granting international monitors unfettered access to all sites in Syria that possess these weapons. This Resolution would have to threaten serious consequences if the Assad regime does not comply, and it would have to be presented to the Security Council for an up or down vote. We would expect Russia and China to support such a Resolution without delay.”</blockquote>
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)
<blockquote>"President Obama’s muddled foreign policy has demonstrated incredible weakness around the world, and his Administration’s handling of the situation in Syria has been stunningly incompetent and incoherent. From the outset, the Obama Administration has failed to articulate an identifiable American national security interest or a clear strategy for success, which is why I remain adamantly opposed to the use of military force in Syria. "Any action in the already volatile country would only make the situation worse. Considering many of the rebels have connections with al Qaeda-linked groups, the alternative is no better. "All week my office has been flooded with constituent phone calls and emails that have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria. I agree with my constituents and the American people, and if a vote comes to the House floor, I will oppose the authorization of military force."</blockquote>
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R)
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)
RNC Chair Reince Priebus
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
<blockquote>“I share President Obama's outrage at the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and applaud him for speaking directly to the American people tonight. I am hopeful that a verifiable, enforceable and timely diplomatic solution will be the American and world response to Syria's deplorable actions. “I remain concerned about the resolution now before the Senate authorizing the use of military force. It is too broadly written, lacks international support, and risks entangling us in Syria’s protracted civil war.”</blockquote>
Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
<blockquote>"It is the threat of military force that has brought Assad to the point of considering international control of his chemical weapons. What Congress should do now is authorize the president’s request of a limited strike. Assad should be warned that if he does not turn the chemical weapons over to international custody in the next three weeks, then the president is authorized to strike.”</blockquote>
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)
<blockquote>“I will continue to engage in this debate...and listen to Idahoans before casting any vote on this matter"</blockquote>
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)
Cummings spoke during an interview with CNN: <blockquote>I thought he did a very good job and I still haven't decided. But I got to tell you, it was not a wasted speech. As a matter of fact, i told the president he needed to make this speech. I thought he made a great moral argument. You know, this whole idea that our troops could be gassed, that is very significant. I mean, you don't hear that too often. That's real. In other words, it would be unfair warfare. What I wanted the president to do and I think he did it, is to tell us why this is in the national security interest of the country.... I like the fact that he acknowledged Iraq. I told the president when he came to the Congress, he did not only come to us, he came to our constituents. When you got 90% of the constituents saying no [in my district]... and this is a district that is 77% for the president, voted for the president; you've got to address my constituents, too. </blockquote>
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
<blockquote>"As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, I will continue to work with my colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — and the administration to find a sensible path forward on Syria. I am encouraged by the movement today toward an international diplomatic resolution to this crisis, and I am pleased the president is carefully pursuing this option. Ultimately, the United States must continue to lead the international community toward an appropriate response to Assad's deplorable use of chemical weapons. U.S. leadership and strength is well served by our participation in this emerging multilateral process."</blockquote>
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.)
<blockquote>“The use of chemical weapons is appalling no matter who uses them or why. When these weapons of mass destruction are used to massacre innocent men, women and children, as appears to be the case in Syria, there should be a robust, global response to deter these types of atrocities from ever happening again. Any such response, military or otherwise, must be taken with a strong, international coalition. “I am cautiously hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be found where Assad allows international inspectors to take control of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. This Russian-proposed solution has been accepted by Syria and is supported by China and Iran. Members of the U.N. Security Council are working on a resolution requiring Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control where they could then be destroyed. This proposal must be closely monitored by the international community to ensure 100 percent of Assad’s chemical weapons are surrendered to the international community without delay. “I support the president’s decision to delay a vote seeking authorization for the use of military force from Congress in order to pursue a diplomatic solution. After several intelligence briefings, I remain skeptical that a limited U.S. military strike will be effective in diminishing Assad’s ability to carry out a chemical weapons attack or deter his willingness to use weapons of mass destruction in the future. I am hesitant to believe such a strike would deter other would-be aggressors. And I am concerned such a strike could lead to long-term ramifications that put American lives, our interests and our allies at risk. “As a combat veteran who was wounded in Vietnam, I do not take the decision to authorize the use military force lightly and believe it would be irresponsible to commit to voting one way or the other until all intelligence has been reviewed and I see exactly what the authorization bill looks like. I will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving situation and work to pursue a non-military course of action that places Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.” </blockquote>
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)
<blockquote>“Tonight, I believe the President outlined a responsible path to a credible diplomatic solution. I will work with my Senate colleagues to craft a bipartisan resolution that includes tight deadlines and which allows unannounced, even intrusive, inspections by international observers. Let’s not forget what brought us to this point: the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against their own people. This was an atrocity that has been banned by international agreement for almost a century, and this conduct deserves strong international condemnation.”</blockquote>
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
<blockquote>“After meeting with President Obama earlier today in the Capitol, and Vice President Biden in the White House situation room last night, I am pleased the President spoke directly to the American people tonight to lay out his strategy for the path ahead with Syria. “A credible diplomatic solution at the United Nations is the best possible outcome for the United States and the world community. We must fully exhaust this developing opportunity before determining whether to authorize U.S. military action. I will closely follow the developments at the United Nations while continuing to review the classified intelligence and attend additional briefings this week to determine the best way forward.”</blockquote>
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)
<blockquote>“The president tonight made a forceful and persuasive case to the American people that confronting Syria’s use of chemical weapons will keep our people and our troops safer. I support his diplomatic efforts to promptly bring Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, one of the world’s largest, under international control. I agree with the president that Syria and Russia would not have raised that possibility if not for the credible threat of military force. I believe Congress can best support the goal of a diplomatic solution by approving a resolution that authorizes the use of force if Syria refuses to give up its chemical weapons.”</blockquote>
Rep. Randy Hultgren (D-Ill.)
<blockquote>“It was clear to me in the last twenty four hours that we are dealing with a rapidly evolving situation that requires a strong collective response by the international community. I do not believe the President and his administration have made a convincing case to the American people that striking Syria with military force is in the best interest of our nation. I welcome constructive diplomatic efforts and will look seriously at any proposal that takes chemical weapons out of the hands of Assad—or rebel factions—and places them under secure international monitoring and control. We will watch closely as the President works with our allies to hammer out a proposal that will lead to a longer-term solution and Syria policy.”</blockquote> <em>Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a statement made by Sen. Carl Levin to Rep. Hultgren.</em>
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.)
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)
<blockquote>“Tonight the President made a strong case to the American people for why Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill Syrian civilians must have consequences. At stake is an international norm against chemical weapons that’s not only protected civilians around the world for nearly 90 years, but also the brave men and women we’ve sent to battle in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While I strongly agree that all diplomatic options must be exhausted before any military action is taken, the diplomatic channels open today would not have been possible without American leadership and pressure on the Assad regime. I applaud the President for making clear to the nation why this principle matters and I urge my Senate colleagues to maintain American resolve as we explore the possibility of placing the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under international control.”</blockquote>
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)
<blockquote>"Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a serious threat to our national security and I am hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be reached to secure and destroy their chemical weapons stockpile. I'm working with my colleagues in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on an amendment to give diplomacy a chance to work, but to also pressure the Syrians to take concrete steps towards the transfer of their chemical weapons to international control. "I continue to believe that the eventual elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles is in our best interest but also understand that it was the threat of force that ultimately pushed Syria and Russia to the negotiating table. Now, we need immediate, serious and credible action from Russia and Syria. They must begin to secure and eventually destroy Syria’s weapons of mass destruction as soon as possible."</blockquote>
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.)
<blockquote>“Our Commander-in-Chief couldn’t have been clearer: the use of chemical weapons is despicable and cannot be tolerated by the civilized world. The United States of America and the international community must hold accountable those who commit the heinous crime of killing innocent civilians, including children, with these universally-condemned weapons of mass destruction. Inaction in the face of such a brazen violation of international norms would be morally irresponsible and would give license to those who seek to perpetrate such a cruel and inhumane act of warfare. “Through his resolve and call for a limited and targeted military response against the Syrian government, President Obama may have pried open the door for a diplomatic solution which the Syrians, with the backing of the Russians, had nailed shut. I applaud the President for continuing to work towards a viable solution to the unconscionable use of chemical weapons in Syria. One way or another, we must leave no ambiguity that the international response to the deplorable use of weapons of mass destruction will be swift and severe.”</blockquote>
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.)
<blockquote>“I am pleased that calls for a more robust strike against Syria have met with the possible outcome of the remove of chemical weapons from Assad. I hope this works, but I am always skeptical when Vladimir Putin is making an offer to help. Regardless, I remain convinced that the only way to assure Americans’ safety is by implementing a strategic and integrated plan that does more than simply ‘shoot across the bow.’”</blockquote>
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.)
<blockquote>"President Obama's remarks this evening did not change my position against authorizing military force in Syria. I do, however, agree with the President that an international proposal to address the Syrian situation through diplomatic negotiations should be pursued.” </blockquote>
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)
<blockquote>"It was important that the President took the time to lay out his case to the American public tonight as well as asking the Congress to delay any votes. But, I continue to believe that military intervention in Syria is not in the best interest of the United States and nothing I heard tonight changes my view of that. I am encouraged by the proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, so they can be secured and destroyed. I continue to believe that an international, diplomatic solution and not a military intervention, is the best response to the threat posed by these weapons."</blockquote>
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.)
<blockquote>“The single greatest reason Bashar al-Assad has been able to remain in power is that he is receiving support from outside governments, including Russia. I have consistently said that the only viable solution is to bring international pressure on Russia and other governments aiding Assad to force them to do the right thing. While we must take a ‘trust-but-verify’ approach, the developments of the last two days are evidence that an international diplomatic solution is still possible – and military strikes are not the only option. I am pleased to see that the president and some of my colleagues who have argued for imminent military strikes are now calling for time to pursue diplomatic options. “I hope the Russians are serious in their proposal – we have good reason for skepticism. As the Senate considers resolutions to resolve the crisis in Syria, we must keep up the diplomatic pressure to ensure Russia follows through on its commitment. Resolutions that would escalate the situation toward military action are reckless and risk dismantling the delicate international agreement. The American people have spoken clearly that they want this problem to be solved without the United States involving itself further in another Middle Eastern civil war. We should listen.”</blockquote>
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)
<blockquote>"I believe that the President tonight made a compelling case to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. He also made clear that Assad must take immediate steps in order to demonstrate his sincerity about verifiable disarmament. I support the President’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution that provides confidence to the world that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will be swiftly moved to international safekeeping with a view toward its eventual destruction. “The events of the past few days demonstrate that the credible threat of military action by the United States, with support from our allies, can compel a nation to reconsider the development or deployment of weapons of mass destruction. This is even more reason why a process to authorize the President to use limited and decisive military force must remain on the table, should diplomatic efforts fail to produce results or if it becomes evident that the Syrian regime is interested only in stalling or delay. “It is in our national security interest – and in the interest of global security and stability – to make clear to the Assad regime, to other nations, and to non-state actors the serious consequences of pursuing or using weapons of mass destruction. I continue to support the President’s determination that the United States and our international partners must take action to deter Assad from employing chemical weapons and to degrade his ability to do so in the future.”</blockquote>
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)
<blockquote>“Tonight, the President spoke to the American people about the terrible atrocities recently committed by the Syrian government, and how the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity cannot be ignored. I’m glad the President now agrees that we should seek a diplomatic solution first, and will engage in a renewed effort with the United Nations. We need to act in our country’s strategic interest, and that means exhausting any diplomatic options before considering the use of force. “The recent news about Assad accepting a Russian proposal to turn over its chemical weapons to international control is promising. It demonstrates there is a stronger appetite for a diplomatic solution that builds robust international support – just like my legislation aims to do. But actions speak louder than words, and we haven’t seen any action yet. "As the diplomatic process the President discussed continues, our nation should keep building international support and putting pressure on the Assad regime to turn over its chemical weapons. And the Senate should continue to consider alternate plans that focus on diplomatic efforts, such as the plan I have put forth.”</blockquote>
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.)
“Tonight, President Obama clearly explained the evidence of the Assad regime’s culpability for the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The President offered a powerful argument outlining the international community’s moral responsibility to prevent the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that would result from allowing this well-established ban to be eroded.” “I applaud the President’s prudent decision to postpone his request for Congressional authorization for the use of military force in order to pursue a diplomatic alternative to this crisis that would guarantee that the Assad regime could never again use these horrific chemical weapons. The President’s proposal provides America with the opportunity to engage the entire international community in the important work of preventing the use of chemical weapons and to pursue this objective in a way that honors our values.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
<blockquote>“There is a reason why the vast majority of Americans disapprove of the work that Congress is doing. Vermonters and the American people want President Obama and Congress to focus on the major crises facing the collapsing middle class – high unemployment, low wages, growing wealth and income inequality, the high cost of college, global warming and many other issues. “I believe that the American people share the president’s concerns about chemical weapons in Syria and the brutal Assad dictatorship. But, in overwhelming numbers, Vermonters are telling me they want those issues addressed diplomatically by the UN and the international community – not by unilateral military action on the part of the U.S. “I am pleased to see that the president and his administration are now working with Russia, France, the UK, China and the United Nations to remove chemical weapons from Syria – without involving the United States in the bloody and complicated Syrian civil war. This is a good step forward.”</blockquote>