Consultations are going on with France and others about how to move quickly — at the United Nations and otherwise — to test whether Russia and Syria are serious about a proposal for Damascus to have Syria hand its chemical arsenal over to international control, the official said.
“There are a lot of moving parts, so I can’t tell you this morning where that piece of this will be when the president addresses the nation tonight,” he said Tuesday.
Obama is seeking to shore up support for a congressional resolution that would authorize him to launch punitive raids on Syria, which his administration accuses of using poison gas against opposition forces and civilians.
Obama has said the threat of American force should remain, even with the new plan on the table.
“It’s certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons,” Obama told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday. “And we don’t want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now.”
The senior administration official, who’s also involved in preparing Obama’s address, pushed back against criticism from some quarters that the administration lacks a clear Syria policy.
“Messy is fine. Messy means progress. Would you prefer we are just going to war?” he said.
“There are a lot of good questions, and there is understandable skepticism. But today is better than yesterday. We would rather have a situation where it is possible there is a diplomatic solution in the offing than one with no choice but to pursue military action.”
Still, the official said of the president’s upcoming prime time address: “The case isn’t much different than it was 24 hours ago.”
Obama will make the case from the White House of why intervention in Syria is in the U.S. national interest and why the United States must be prepared to act.
The question of whether a deadline should be imposed on Russia and Syria to act on the proposal “is one of the many important questions being discussed,” the official said. “We understand there has to be a way of testing the seriousness of the proposal.”
Obama will also head to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to try to drum up support for proposed U.S. intervention to enforce an international ban on chemical weapons use.
Whatever his arguments, the president may face an uphill battle to win over Americans and their representatives.
A CNN/ORC International poll published Monday found Americans strongly opposed to attacking Syria. Of the 1,022 people polled between Friday and Sunday, 59% said Congress should not authorize military action, and 72% said American strikes would achieve no significant goals.
France eyes U.N. Security Council
The Russian proposal came after comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier Monday — remarks that the State Department said were meant to be rhetorical, but which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed concretely.
Syrian Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was cited by Russia’s Interfax news agency Tuesday as saying that Syria has accepted the proposal.
Amid international concern that Damascus may not be serious about the plan, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France would submit a resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
Fabius said that France welcomed the Russian plan for Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control, but that the proposal must not be a diversion.
The five points of its planned resolution are: condemning the massacre committed by the Syrian regime on August 21; having Syria shed light on its weapons of mass destruction and place them under international control; having international inspections; having severe consequences if Syria violates its obligations; and submitting the perpetrators of the August 21 massacre to international justice.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also called for “concrete actions” from Syria.
In the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday postponed a procedural vote that had been scheduled for Wednesday after the proposal floated by Lavrov.
An aide said the Russian proposal on chemical weapons is serious and fluid enough that senators do not want to lock themselves into a position on Syria just yet.