WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address Tuesday night that recent diplomatic steps offer "the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons" inside Syria without the use of force, but he also insisted the U.S. military will keep the pressure on President Bashar Assad "and be ready to respond" if other measures fail.
Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on legislation he has been seeking to authorize the use of military force against Syria.
Acknowledging the weariness the nation feels after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said, "America is not the world's policeman."
And yet, he added, "When with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."
"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria," he declared.
The speech capped a frenzied 10-day stretch of events that began when he unexpectedly announced he was stepping back from a threatened military strike and first asking Congress to pass legislation authorizing the use of force against Assad.
With public opinion polls consistently showing widespread opposition to American military intervention, the White House has struggled mightily to generate support among lawmakers -- liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike -- who have expressed fears of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East and have questioned whether U.S. national security interests were at stake in Syria. Obama had trouble, as well, building international support for a military attack designed to degrade Assad's military.
Suddenly, though, events took another unexpected turn this week. First Russia and then Syria reacted positively to a seemingly off-hand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry indicating that the crisis could be defused if Damascus agreed to put its chemical weapons under international control.
The president said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, and he added, "I will continue my own discussion" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, he said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the United Nations Security Council "requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control."
In the 16-minute speech, Obama laid out evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for the poisonous gas attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians, including hundreds of children.
Obama said he had resisted previous calls for military intervention in Syria's internal conflict that's killed 100,000 people, "because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force."
"The situation profoundly changed, though, on Aug. 21. when Assad's government gassed to death over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children," the president said in a nationally televised address.
"The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women and children lying in rows, killed by poisonous gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk," the president said.
"We know the Assad regime was responsible," Obama said.
"In the days leading up to Aug. 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack in an area where they mix sarin gas, they distributed gas masks to their troops, ten they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces," the president said.
"Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded," Obama said, adding that Syrian military leaders "reviewed the results of the attack, and the regime increased their shelling of those same neighborhoods in the days that follows."
He said U.S. investigators have studied blood and hair samples from people in the area of the attacks and they tested positive for sarin gas.
The president said if the world doesn't act to hold Syria accountable, then other dictators won't think twice about unleashing weapons of mass destruction.
"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until these horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied," he said.
This endangers the world and the national security of the United States, the president said.