He later added that any agreement must include binding consequences if Syria fails to comply, and lawmakers moved to rewrite pending legislation along the same lines.
Obama himself ‘‘wasn’t overly optimistic about’’ prospects for a solution at the U.N., said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, after his party’s rank and file met privately for lunch in the Capitol with the president. He quoted Obama as saying that even if a credible plan could be worked out, it could be difficult to push through the U.N. Security Council. And, indeed, Russian President Putin said such a U.N. effort could work only if ‘‘the American side and those who support the USA in this sense reject the use of force.’’
The president readied his speech as a small crowd of anti-war protesters, some waving signs, gathered outside the gates of the White House.
U.S. officials say more than 1,400 died in the Aug. 21 episode, including at least 400 children, and other victims suffered uncontrollable twitching, foaming at the mouth and other symptoms typical of exposure to chemical weapons banned by international treaty. Other casualty estimates are lower, and Assad has said the attack was launched by rebels who have been fighting to drive him from power in a civil war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians.
Assad’s patron, Russia, has blocked U.S. attempts to rally the Security Council behind a military strike. But Monday, after a remark by Kerry, it spoke favorably about requiring Syria to surrender control of its chemical weapons, and the Syrian foreign minister did likewise.
The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that his government was ready to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile in line with Russia’s proposal in order ‘‘to thwart U.S. aggression.’’ He also said Syria was prepared to sign an international chemical convention it has long rejected — a step it can take on its own at any time without U.S. or U.N. supervision.
Syria has long refused to provide an accounting of the size of its stockpile, rarely referring in public to its existence. According to an unclassified estimate by the French government, it includes more than 1,000 tons of ‘‘chemical agents and precursor chemicals,’’ including sulfur mustard, VX and sarin gas.
Obama has said frequently he has the authority as commander in chief to order a military strike against Assad regardless of any vote in Congress.
The response in Congress to support such a strike has been lukewarm at best — as underscored during the day when liberal Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and conservative Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., both announced their opposition.
Markey, who was elected to the seat that Kerry vacated when he joined the Cabinet, said the legislation under consideration was too broad, ‘‘the effects of a strike are too unpredictable, and ... I believe we must give diplomatic measures that could avoid military action a chance to work.’’
Said Mulvaney: ‘‘While I am concerned about taking no action, it strikes me that international law cannot be upheld via unilateral attack by the United States.’’
And Rep. James Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who sits on committees dealing both with military and intelligence matters, said he feared that ‘‘Iran and Russia could cause serious damage’’ to the United States if they retaliated with a cyberattack.
Yet Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said, ‘‘It would be inimical to our country’s standing if we do not show a willingness to act in the face of the use of chemical weapons and to act in a limited way to address that use alone.’’
Hours before Obama’s speech from the White House’s East Room, Hoyer added, ‘‘ I don’t think there’s any doubt that failure to do so would weaken our country, create a more dangerous international environment and to some degree undermine the president of the United States.’’
Earlier, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against legislation giving the president authority for limited strikes. ‘‘There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria,’’ he said.
By contrast, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, the top two Republicans in the House, have endorsed Obama’s request.
Given the uncertainty of diplomatic maneuvering, no vote is expected for several days, if then.
‘‘If something can be done diplomatically, I'm totally satisfied with that. I'm not a blood and thunder guy. I'm not for shock and awe,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a reference to the massive display of firepower that opened the war in Iraq nearly a decade ago.Continued...