Obama faces hard sell in address to American people on Syria


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE


Posted on September 10, 2013 at 5:04 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 10 at 8:21 PM

AUSTIN -- Holding signs and singing songs, dozens gathered for a candlelight vigil Monday night protesting U.S. military action in Syria.

"This is not an issue of left and right, progressive and Republican, Democratic," one demonstrator told KVUE. "The entire country agrees after the horrors of the Iraq war that bombing Syria and entering another war is a bad idea. It's just that simple."

It was just the latest of a growing number of demonstrations in Austin alone, including a demonstration over the weekend at the Texas Capitol.

"I think the U.S. intervention will make things even more complicated, because we're not dealing with rebels here who are looking for democracy," said one Syrian-American. "We're dealing with people with extremist opinions."

President Barack Obama will soon make his case to the American people for a "limited strike" in response to an alleged chemical attack on civilians by the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad. The speech set to begin roughly 8:00 p.m. Tuesday night will be broadcast live on KVUE and streamed online at www.kvue.com.

"Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again, that they would fall into the hands of terrorists that might use them against us," the president said in a White House video released Saturday.

"He needs to show that this is not a pinprick action, that there is support, there is a desire to do more, that we care enough about this," said Dr. Jeremi Suri, a foreign policy expert, author and historian at the University of Texas. "Second, he needs to be able to build an international alliance. He needs to show people abroad that this is not just Barack Obama acting, but it's the American people acting. And then the third thing is he has an agenda of various other things and he already has enough problems with Congress. The last thing he needs is another fight with Congress before a big budget battle."

"The president has to do three things tonight to succeed," said Suri. "One, he has to outline a clear objective. Americans need to know what it is we are aiming to achieve. Second, he needs to show a viable path to that objective. He needs to show that he has a plan and that we are going to use our capabilities in specific ways to achieve that objective. And then third, and most important of all, he has to show that it is something that is going to be worth the cost to us. Americans are hyper-conscious now of the costs of our engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere."

Meanwhile, an emerging potential diplomatic solution could see al-Assad hand over chemical weapons to Russia. In interviews Monday, President Obama suggested he would consider the Russian initiative. On Tuesday, Syrian officials announced the government is willing to comply with the deal.

"I think it's certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons this is what we've been asking for," Obama told CNN Monday. "I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there are even public statements like that without a credible military threat."

Yet Suri warns Russia's political and economic interests in Syria are very different from those of the United States, and any deal brokered by the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin must be approached cautiously.

"The Russians believe that their future interests are tied up with having influence in the Middle East. They want access to the oil. They want access to the various groups in the Middle East, and most of all they want to be able to sell their goods in that region. They sell a lot of weapons, for example, to the Syrians and others," said Suri. "Syria's one of the last allies they have, and Assad has been very loyal to them, both father and son."

"We have to be very wary of the Russian leadership, in part because of its own history, but also because its interests are at odds with us," explained Suri. "The Russians want to increase their influence in the region, they want to decrease our influence. They are not interested in democratization in the region. They want to keep dictators like Assad in power.

"So we have to be very, very wary," said Suri. "The Russians do not want to see war. So we can potentially work with them, but we have to make sure that any agreement on the oversight of chemical weapons is monitored by someone Other than the Russians and that there are mechanisms in place to take action if the Russians don't do what they claim they will do. It would not be the first time they defect on their agreements."

Suri says such a mechanism could test the effectiveness and resolve of the United Nations and America's international allies.

"This is where Barack Obama's efforts to improve relations with allies in the U.N. will be important, but it also shows the limitations of these organizations," said Suri. "It's not clear the United Nations will be able to actually effectively monitor an agreement that will need monitoring, and that's a real thing to watch. Can we create a monitoring process at the U.N. that would actually work for this?"

"We're all very skeptical of the Russians," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox and Friends Tuesday morning. "We don't trust them normally, but I do think there's one country that can influence Assad and Syria to stop using these weapons and turn them over to the international community to be secured and destroyed. And it's really Putin."

What's clear, the president will have plenty of convincing to do Tuesday night.



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