"If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons,” Obama said in his 15-minute speech from the ornate East Room of the White House. "As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.”
Speaking calmly but firmly, Obama spent the bulk of the address advocating the use of force to deter the future use of chemical weapons, which Washington accuses the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad of deploying in the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus that the US government says killed more than 1,400 people.
But he also said he would work with Moscow on a Russian-backed proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control and that he had asked the US Congress to postpone a vote that he had been pushing for authorizing military action against Syria to give the diplomatic gambit a chance.
"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. "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 proposal emerged only a day earlier after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on a comment made by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said a US strike against Syrian targets could be averted if Damascus put "every single bit” of its chemical weapons under international control by week’s end.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Tuesday that Syria is ready to give up chemical weapons and join an international convention banning them, and he is set to meet with Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to discuss Syria’s arsenal.
Obama said he has spoken with US allies France and the United Kingdom and would "work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and ultimately destroy them under international control.”
The Syrian government has blamed the Aug. 21 attack on rebel forces, and Russia has tentatively backed its long-time ally, while calling for further investigation.
Obama said in his primetime, nationally televised speech that the "encouraging signs” in recent days were thanks in part to "constructive talks” he has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also stressed that the "credible” US military threat pushed Damascus to do an about-face on its chemical weapons.
Obama is facing significant resistance from the war-weary American public and US lawmakers to another military incursion into the Middle East, and said he understands his fellow citizens’ concerns.
He repeated his insistence, however, that no "American boots” would be on the ground in Syria but that US military action would not be feckless.
"The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks,” Obama said. "Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
In arguing his case for punitive strikes against Syria, Obama cited the horrifying images of the bodies of children allegedly killed in the Aug. 21 attack that have circulated on the Internet in recent weeks, while saying that in addition to the nation’s security, America’s "ideals and principles” are at stake in Syria.
"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. "That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Obama also called on American citizens and US lawmakers to overcome partisan and ideological divides and form a united front against the Assad government in response to the apparent use of chemical weapons.
"What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way,” Obama said.
He did face some criticism from US lawmakers immediately after his address Tuesday evening. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham – both fierce and consistent Kremlin critics – said in a joint statement that he should have spelled out how he plans to verify the legitimacy of Russia’s proposal on Syria’s stockpiles.
"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,” McCain and Graham said.