Obama Administration Makes Hard Push For Syria Strike

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President Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday as opposition to air strikes against Syria continued to mount in the polls and on Capitol Hill, where the timing of a vote on his resolution of support remains uncertain.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The White House is pulling out all the stops today, trying to overcome public and congressional opposition to a military strike on Syria. To make the case, President Obama sat down for six network television interviews. But nearly all the attention was focused on a new proposal, from Russia, that would have Syria give up its chemical arsenal in order to avoid a U.S. military strike.

The idea evolved out of a seemingly offhand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry. When asked about the plan, President Obama had this to say.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point - where there were even public statements like that - without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria.

CORNISH: Joining us now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And, Mara, how did we get here?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, it all started with John Kerry, as you mentioned, saying that well, there is an alternative to military action. He said, well, hypothetically, Syria could agree to completely give up all of its chemical weapons - over to international control; they could do this immediately - within a week. But that's not going to happen because it can't be done. And after he said that, the Russians jumped on this proposal and said oh, well, we were proposing this - that the Syrians should turn over their chemical weapons. The Syrian foreign minister said well, this is something we want to look at. And then you have the president saying, well, this is something that's worth running to ground, potentially positive; we'd have to trust but verify. And that's where we are now.

CORNISH: So you've had this dueling diplomatic statements, but exactly how would this work? I mean, what would it mean to verify a plan like this?

LIASSON: Most experts say it would be almost impossible to verify something like this in a peaceful situation, let alone in the middle of a civil war. You'd probably have to have a cease-fire. You'd have to have a tremendous number of U.N. inspectors, weapons inspectors on the ground to actually verify that these weapons had been turned over. It's very hard to do this. Eight years after Libya supposedly turned over its weapons of mass destruction, inspectors were still finding some. So it's unclear if something like this could be verified.

CORNISH: Now, Mara, help us understand. Is this a positive or a negative political development?

LIASSON: Well, it's absolutely positive on the political side. You've got to understand, the president was facing diminishing public and congressional support for the authorization of military force. He'd been working around the clock talking to members, giving classified briefings. He was getting ready to give a big speech to the nation tomorrow night. And he really wasn't getting anywhere.

Right now, the Senate vote, the procedural vote that was scheduled for Wednesday, has been postponed. The Senate was always considered to be his best bet, that they - Harry Reid seemed confident of getting the 60 votes to stop a filibuster, and then the 51 to authorize force. But the House looked very, very dicey. Sentiment there was running heavily against authorizing the president.

So this gives Mr. Obama a little more time, gives members of Congress a little bit of a reprieve from a vote they didn't want to take. And at the very least, no matter how this works out, even if it doesn't provide a diplomatic solution to the conflict, it gives the president more time to convince the American people, who have been telling pollsters they are about 2 to 1 against military strikes against Syria.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

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