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Syria: Obama prepares to address Americans during crucial week

Barack Obama is due to address the nation today, while he awaits the outcome of a Congress vote on Syria strikes.

YESTERDAY BEGAN WITH US President Barack Obama and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad both taking part in separate US television interviews, and ended with an interesting turn of events regarding Syria and chemical weapons.

This is a crucial week for Obama, who is due to address the nation today – and he started yesterday with the first of six interviews with US television broadcasters.

Here’s one of those interviews, which he did with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

(CNN/YouTube)

Obama is waiting for a Congress vote on authorising a strike on Syria, but admitted last night that he “wouldn’t say I’m confident”.

Amidst increasing opposition to the strikes, the Senate announced yesterday it is delaying a test vote on authorising US strikes against Syria.

This means that it is not clear when the planned full Senate vote on Wednesday will end up taking place.

US Congress is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The latter makes up the bulk of Congress members.

A positive vote from Congress would give Obama a maximum of 90 days to carry out a military act on Syria.

Obama is to meet with Republican senators on Capitol Hill today, when he will appeal for support for a Syria strike.

Russia, Syria and chemical weapons

imageJohn Kerry at the London press conference yesterday. Pic: David Bebber/The Times/PA Wire

Secretary of State John Kerry had appeared to suggest yesterday that Syria could avoid a potential US air attack by putting its chemical weapons under international control – but almost in the same breath, said that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done”.

In an e-mail to reporters afterwards, said the New York Times, the State Department’s spokesperson said that Kerry had been “making a rhetorical argument” about the unlikelihood of Assad turning over any chemical weapons.

However, the seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion was taken up by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who then – in a somewhat unexpected move – took the idea to Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem.

Lavrov urged Damscus to “place chemical weapons under international control and then to have them destroyed”.

Muallem told the Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS that Syria “welcomes the Russian initiative based on Syrian leadership’s concern about the lives of our nationals and the security of our country”.

But this does not mean that Syria will do anything about Russia’s suggestion, though it seemed to acknowledge that Syria does have a chemical arsenal.

But the Syrian rebels denounced the idea, saying it was a plot by Russian President Vladimir Putin to protect his ally Assad.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was concerned that the plan might be a “distraction tactic”, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the proposal was “interesting”.

UN leader Ban Ki-Moon called for the creation of UN supervised zones in Syria where chemical weapons can be destroyed.

Tony Blinken, deputy US national security advisor, said that though they would welcome a decision and action by Syria, the country’s track record to date “doesn’t give you a lot of confidence”.

Earlier that day, Assad had called on the US to produce evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, denying it took place.

The Assad interview

image

Pic: AP Photo/CBS This Morning

In an interview with US network CBS, Assad said that Syria had expected that the US administration under Obama would be different from his predecessor George Bush’s – and it was disappointed that it wasn’t.

He said that America should ask the question of what do wars give the country:

(Bloomberg/YouTube)

Assad said that a US attack on Syria would only help its enemies, and would not give America anything to gain – but would support Al-Qaeda.

He said that the Russians have evidence that Syrian rebels were responsible for using chemical weapons.

“How can you talk about what happened when you don’t have evidence?” said Assad.

Hillary Clinton

image

Hillary Rodham Clinton. Pic: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Meanwhile, former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed Obama’s attempt to win congressional approval.

She described any move by the Assad regime to surrender its weapons to international control – following Kerry’s remarks – as an “important step”.

She added that “the international community cannot ignore the ongoing threat of the Assad regime’s stockpiling of chemical weapons.”

Obama told NBC news yesterday that he remains sceptical that Syria will turn over its chemical weapons stockpile, and is taking a statement from Damascus “with a grain of salt initially”.

He told CNN that it is “possible” it could avert a US strike, “if it’s real”, but did say it was a “positive development”.

Today

Today, Obama will address Americans from the White House, where he will update them on the latest news in the Syrian crisis.

He is expected to yet again outline why he feels it is important to act on the belief that Syria holds chemical weapons and has used them in the deadly Damascus attack, and could also comment on whether Syria will act on Kerry’s chemical arms suggestion.

His advisers have been putting out the message that a strike at Syria is ‘not another war’, perhaps in a move to try and calm the many accusations that surround Obama’s decision to press ahead with strikes.

(AP/YouTube)

He will visit Congress today, hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough and gathering more support for the strikes. Several Democrats and Republicans have already announced their opposition this week.

It emerged today that 61 per cent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorisation of US military strikes in Syria, according to a new Associated Press poll.

About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided.

It could take much work to change the minds of those who oppose military action – and tonight’s address is another chance for Obama to try just that.

- Additional reporting AP

Read: Obama and Assad go head-to-head in US interview duel >

Read: EU ministers believe Assad was responsible for Syria chemical attack >

Read: President Assad puts it up to US to produce evidence of chemical attack>

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