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President Barack Obama said Tuesday night that he would put off a military strike and work with Russia, China and American allies to force Syria to hand over its chemical weapons.
Obama, speaking from the East Room of the White House, said that the Syrian government’s use of chemicals in an attack on rebels and civilians last month presented a danger to American security and violated the world’s conscience.
The president, arguing a moral case to a country wearied by a decade of war, invoked gruesome images from the Aug. 21 attack outside the Syrian capital. He spoke of fathers clutching lifeless children, dead bodies lined up in rows and people left foaming at the mouth.
“Sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough,” he said. “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”
Obama said he would work with other countries to pressure Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them — a proposal that reshaped both the crisis and the president’s address over two furious days of diplomacy.
But Obama said he would order the military to stay in place in the region and to keep pressure on Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader, who the United States says ordered the attack against his opponents in Syria’s civil war.
Obama pledged not to send American troops into Syria but warned: “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
The president said American security was put at risk by the chemical attack. He said failing to respond would encourage Assad to use chemical weapons again, embolden other tyrants around the world and endanger U.S. allies, including Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
He said the United States could not be the world’s police, “but 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.”
Public opinion polls have also showed consistent opposition to American military involvement in Syria. In a poll released Tuesday by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 58 percent of respondents said their member of Congress should vote against authorizing force, compared with 33 percent in favor.
And only 44 percent said they favored military action against Syria, even if it were limited to cruise missiles launched from Navy ships — a decline of six percentage points from a poll released late last month.
When Obama announced last Friday that he would address the nation on Syria, he was expected to issue a call to arms. But on Monday morning, the outlines of the crisis began to change by the hour.
Secretary of State John Kerry said, almost offhandedly and in response to a reporter’s question, that Syria could avert an American strike by putting his chemical weapons under international control.
Within hours, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had presented just such a plan to Syria, a Russian ally, as a way to end the crisis, and Syria suggested that it welcomed the idea.
China and Iran also endorsed the plan. China is critical to the process partly because it holds veto power on the United Nations Security Council. The United States has considered the U.N. a dead-end for approving a Syria strike because of opposition from China and Russia.
On Tuesday, Russia added a wrinkle of complication: President Vladimir Putin said that a proposal for Syria to hand over its weapons would not work unless the United States and its allies promise not to use force.
In Congress, a small group of senators from both parties worked on language for a new resolution on Syria to include the surrender of chemical weapons. And a flurry of senators announced they would vote “no” on the previous resolution to authorize force, a resolution effectively made dead by the diplomatic developments.
In Syria, rebels told NBC News that they believe the proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons is a ploy.
“There is anger and disappointment on the streets now,” one opposition activist said in Damascus. “We have been facing death and under fire for the last two and half years while the world has been silent. Even after the use of chemical weapons, no one acted. We only have God to help us.”
Richard Engel, Kelly O’Donnell, Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker of NBC News contributed to this report.