President Barack Obama has confirmed that a vote on air strikes against Syria is off – for now.
In an address to the nation overnight he said he had asked Congress to postpone any decision on military action, so that a diplomatic solution can be pursued.
But he remains cautious about Russia’s plan for Syria to declare its chemical weapons – saying it’s “too early to tell” if agreement can be reached.
He said the images and videos of men, women and children dying in the suspected gas attack by President Bashar al Assad’s regime were sickening and demanded a response.
But speaking from the East Room in the White House, he said he had asked Congress to postpone a vote on action in Syria while the possibility of a diplomatic solution is pursued.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem said the regime was ready to co-operate fully with the Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control and would stop producing more.
Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday.
But Mr Obama has ordered the US military to maintain its current posture to keep the pressure on Mr Assad’s regime should diplomacy fail.
“It is too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” he said. “And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
Mr Obama once again ruled out putting American “boots on the ground” but added that with “modest effort and risks”, limited strikes could make Syria safer.
“A targeted strike can make Assad – or any other dictator – think twice about using chemical weapons,” he said.
He accepted that many Americans were weary of military action after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said the limitations he was imposing on the potential strike would ensure against the US sliding down a slippery slope into another prolonged war.
“The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”
Mr Obama added that the US is not the “world’s policeman” but that when ideals, principles and security are a stake, his country must act.
At the United Nations, Britain, France and the US discussed elements of a draft Security Council resolution that would include a timeline for Syria to declare the full extent of its poison gas arsenal and to cede control of it to the UN.
Russia called an emergency closed door UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday evening to discuss the handover proposals, but later cancelled it.
But President Vladimir Putin insisted the handover of weapons would only work if the US rejected a use of force against Syria.