What You Need To Know Before Obama’s Address On Syria


Tuesday saw enough ups and downs in the Syria crisis to frequently leave even the most weathered news observer lost at just where the situation stood. As President Obama prepares to address the nation from the East Room of the White House later tonight, here’s what you need to know about just went on today:

France Heads For Turtle Bay

France announced early this morning it would move quickly to introduce a United Nations Security Council resolution based on the proposal that up-ended the Syria debate yesterday — namely that Syria turn over its chemical weapons to international control.

Under the French draft, which the United States and United Kingdom quickly moved to support, the U.N. Security Council would:

  • condemn the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds and place the blame on the shoulders of the Syrian government;
  • demand that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad give up all elements of his chemical weapons program and place them under international control for dismantling them; put in place a Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) monitoring program;
  • make clear there will be “extremely serious consequences” for non-compliance;
  • and say that the perpetrators of last month’s attack would be tried at the International Criminal Court.

The resolution would also be under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the portion that allows the Security Council to make demands of member states. Invoking Chapter VII is often a way to put the full weight of international law behind a document, but can also open the door to the potential use of force under its provisions.

Administration Officials Back On The Hill

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry was back in the Capitol building on Tuesday, joined again by Secretary if Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, this time testifying before the House Armed Services Committee. Unlike last week’s hearings before the House and Senate’s foreign affairs panels, today’s panel was relatively sparsely attended though the questioning was no less tough.

On the subject of the Russian proposal, which came about due to Kerry answering a question in London yesterday, Kerry expressed a cautious optimism, but urged Congress to approve strikes in any case. “But make no mistake about why this is now even on the table,” Kerry said in his opening statement. “They say nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.” While defending the need to have Congress move forward and authorize strikes, Hagel informed the committee that the earliest a strike against Syria would take place at this point is now mid-October, a point lost in the tumult of the day.

Syria Shocks The World

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem yesterday said that he would be open to the idea of turning over the country’s chemical weapons to international control, in itself a surprise due to Syria previously denying it possesses such weapons. That shock was magnified on Tuesday when Syria announced that it was ready and willing to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over all elements of its program. “We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations,” Muallem said in an interview. “We intend to give up chemical weapons altogether.”

Congress Hits Pause On Clearing Missile Strikes

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also announced that he was going to delay until next week a vote on an authorization to use force against Syria. The first vote invoking cloture on the bill was initially set to take place yesterday, but was put on hiatus due to the rapidly changing international situation surrounding Syria. “It is important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not fear to act,” Reid said in a statement, echoing the Obama administration, adding “The Senate should give these international discussions time to play out, but not unlimited time.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators began preparing a new version of the authorization, tailored to meet the new realities of the situation. The new legislation would call for the U.N. to pass a resolution along the lines of the French proposal, followed by the removal of chemical weapons within a specified time-frame. If the weapons were unable to be removed within that timetable, then the United States would be authorized to use military force against Syria.

Russia Complicates Matters

Russia’s Foreign Ministry caused worried mumbling among foreign policy observers when it “wasn’t keen,” on the French U.N. draft, particularly the Chapter VII authorization. “There first needs to be a resolution that puts Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, which Syria has already accepted, and if there is something lacking we can come back to the U.N. Security council to negotiate a new resolution,” Alexandre Orlov told French radio RTL.

The mumbling turned into a full-throated cry of concern when Russia Today published an exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposal. “Of course, all of this will only mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they’re giving up their plan to use force against Syria,” Putin said. “You can’t really ask Syria, or any other country, to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.”

Russia then complicated matters further by calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss what was rumored to be a non-binding Presidential Statement, which would possibly take the place of France’s draft. In the end, the meeting was postponed until a later date so that more informal consultations could take place. While the ICC referral and the threat of consequences are sure to be the most likely targets of Russia’s ire as the draft resolution is amended in the coming days, the fact that Russia is employing many of the tactics seen during previous U.N. efforts over Syria is likely causing concern.