President Barack Obama says he is willing to wait weeks, but not months, as Congress debates taking military action against Syria.
Speaking to Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace as part of a media blitz on Monday, Obama said that he is aware he has yet to persuade a majority of the American public or Congress.
“I am going to make sure that this does not change the calendar of debate in Congress, but there was no expectation that Congress would be finished with its deliberations over the next week or so,” Obama said.
But he told Wallace he would not wait “months” before making a decision on taking action.
Obama gave six television interviews Monday to press his case that Congress should grant him authority to take action against Syria in response to an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people.
And he appeared to welcome a proposal by Russia to offer Syria the chance to put its chemical weapons, which Syria has previously denied it even owns, under international control if America doesn’t launch missile strikes.
“This could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” Obama told NBC News in an interview. “But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we’ve seen them operate over the last couple of years.”
The president said he had explored the possibility of a proposal for Syria to cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting last week in Russia.
If Syria did so, that would “absolutely” put any U.S. military strike on pause, Obama told ABC News.
Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Obama said, “I would say to (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, we need a political settlement so you’re not slaughtering your own people, and, by the way, encouraging some elements of the opposition to engage in some terrible behavior as well.”
On Assad’s threat to strike back if the U.S. attacks, Obama said that although Assad has the capability to gas children and lead a trained military against mostly untrained rebels, “He doesn’t have a credible means to threaten the United States.”
Iran and Hezbollah could engage in “assymetrical strikes against us,” he admitted, referring to the current threats against American embassies and U.S. personnel in the region.
Obama told ABC that strikes may be less effective if he doesn’t have congressional support and “if the American people don’t recognize why we’re doing this.” Even members of Obama’s and his wife’s families are “very wary and suspicious of any action,” he told PBS’s Gwen Ifill.
But allowing Assad to get away with using chemical weapons against his own people would set a dangerous precedent that could see their use grow, he said.
“It means our troops when they are in theater will all have to start wearing gas masks, because they don’t know whether or not chemical weapons will be used,” he said.
With the American public strongly opposed to a military intervention, according to polls, the White House is making an all-out effort to win congressional support. It is holding briefings for lawmakers and dispatching senior officials to give speeches and television interviews.
The president plans to address the nation on television on Tuesday night and is due to speak to senators of both parties on Capitol Hill during the day.
Obama told CNN that any diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis must be serious and not just a bid to buy time.
“We don’t want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now,” he said. “We have to maintain this pressure, which is why I’ll still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important.”
Russia’s proposal could make Obama’s bid to win congressional approval to use force in Syria an easier sell on Capitol Hill, two influential senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abruptly backed off plans to schedule a test vote on Wednesday on a resolution to authorize military strikes against Syria.
Aides said the situation was fluid, particularly with Russia now trying to help find a way to avoid U.S. military force, but a vote was still likely later in the week.
Obama cautioned that a breakthrough on control of Syrian chemical weapons would not solve the country’s civil war, but resolving concerns about the weapons without having to resort to force would be welcome.
“If we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference,” he told CNN.
Obama said he has not made up his mind whether he will forge ahead with military action if Congress votes his proposal down.
“It’s fair to say that I haven’t decided,” he told NBC.
Still, the president faces an uphill struggle to win approval from lawmakers, and he acknowledged that he has doubts about how the vote will turn out.
“You know, I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” he said in the NBC interview.