Obama’s language on Syria leaves door open for diplomatic solution

US president’s TV appearances focus on whether compromise can be struck

US president Barack Obama is interviewed by Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. Photograph: Pete Souza/Reuters

US president Barack Obama is interviewed by Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. Photograph: Pete Souza/Reuters


SIMON CARSWELL, Washington Correspondent

The television appearances were expected to be about pushing the case for military strikes but yesterday’s events pushed the focus on to whether a compromise could be struck.

US president Barack Obama took to six American television networks – ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and PBS – in one-to-one interviews in an attempt to win over more political and public support for action against Syria.

Instead of hearing more about how the US believed military action against Syria was necessary on the basis of breaches of international norms and the threats to national security over the alleged August 21st chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, Obama offered a chance of a diplomatic solution.

The thrust of his message in response to Russia’s proposal that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons be put under international control was that the US had been trying to go down this route for two years and has been met with opposition from both Russia and Syria.

“It is possible if it is real,” Obama told CNN of the Russian’s proposal which was welcomed by the Syrians. Damascus did not go as far as saying that they would comply with the solution.

Obama’s language left the door open on a diplomatic solution to a domestic and international crisis as his chances of securing Congressional authorisation for military action appear weak.

It was odd that the possible political solution on Syria grew out of an off-message comment from US secretary of state John Kerry in response to a question from a reporter in London.

Much like Obama’s ill-advised “red line” comment a year ago put the US on particular course, Kerry’s remarks that Assad surrender his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week to avoid military action has charted out a potential new route down which this crisis could travel.

Kerry qualified his comments saying that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously” but his impromptu and unintended overture could allow Obama to avoid an unpopular military action.

In several pre-recorded interviews broadcast in the US at 6pm yesterday, the president described a possible solution borne out of a day of fast-moving diplomatic choreography as “a potentially positive development,” a “modestly” positive development and “potentially a significant breakthrough.”

While sceptical that the gesture from the Russians and Syrians might be a “stalling” tactic given their past opposition to a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, Obama still said that he would “absolutely” halt military action if Assad surrendered his chemical weapons.

Averting military action could also save Obama from a humiliating rejection by the US Congress. The Senate is divided on whether to authorise military action against Syria and the majority of those in the House of Representative who have shown their hand oppose action or are leaning against it.

The start of the Senate voting process was delayed yesterday by the Democratic majority leader Harry Reid to allow Obama to make his case to the American people in a televised address tonight.

Obama must keep pushing for military action to maintain pressure on Assad and the momentum in his uphill political campaign for support at home while keeping the possibility of a peaceful solution open.