Crisis In Syria: Presidential Address to the Nation

Obama: "This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemicals without the use of force."
20:41 | 09/10/13

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Transcript for Crisis In Syria: Presidential Address to the Nation
This is an abc news special report. A presidential address to the nation. The crisis in syria. And a good evening to all of you. I'm diane sawyer. So glad you're with us tonight. It is a big night of high stakes on the world stage. And the situation is changing fast. President obama is now just moments from speaking directly to the american people on syria. On that threatened military strike by the u.S. And whether it's all changed tonight because a dictator may be backing down. Our abc news/"washington post" poll has shown that a majority of americans tonight, 64%, oppose a u.S. Strike on syria. And so some questions. Is america safer now and have the russians really persuaded syria to turn over their chemical weapons? So, let's go straight to abc's chief white house correspondent jonathan karl standing by. We're expecting the president any minute now. Jon? Reporter: Diane, the president will make it clear in this speech that he is taking this russian proposal to have the syrians turn over their chemical weapons seriously. But I've got to tell you, they view it skeptically. The phrase here is trust but verify. Just verify, because there's no real trust with the syriansrussians. They're going to be talking with the russians, talking, of course, with the european allies, as well, jon? Reporter: That's right. Secretary of state kerrly will be talking with his russian counterpart on thursday. And here now, heading into the east room, the president, speaking about syria and the united states, tonight. My fellow americans, tonight I want to talk to you about syria. Why it matters, and where we go from here. Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, america's worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement. But I have resisted calls for military action, because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force. Particularly after a decade of war in iraq and after began stan. The situation profoundly CHANGED, THOUGH, ON AUGUST 21st, When assad's government gassed to death over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. The images of this massacre are sickening. Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gag for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons. And why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits. A crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war. This was not always the case. IN WORLD WAR I, AMERICAN G.I.s Were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of europe. In world war ii, the nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the united states senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement, prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Now joined by 189 governments that represent 98% of humanity. ON AUGUST 21st, THESE BASIC Rules were violated. Along with our sense of common humanity. No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cell phone pictures and social media accounts from the attack. And humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas. Moreover, we know that assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to august 21st, WE KNOW THAT ASSAD'S Chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regi regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in assad's military machine reviews the results of the attack. And the regime increased their sheing of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We've studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site, that tested positive for sarin. When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way, until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is, what the united states of america, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people, to those children, is not only a violation of international law, it is also a danger to our security. Let me explain why. If we fail to act, the assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians. If fighting spills beyond syria's borders, these weapons could threaten allies like turkey, jordan and israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden asad's ally, iran. This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the united states to respond to the assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. 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. That's my judgment as commander in chief. But I'm also the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. So, even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of congress. And I believe that america acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people's representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force. Now, I know that after the terrible toll of iraq and afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. After all, I've spent 4 1/2 years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of iraq, our troops are coming home from afghanistan. And I know americans want all of us in washington, especially me, to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home. Putting people back to work. Educating our kids. Growing our middle class. It's no wonder, then, that you're asking hard questions. I've heard from members of congress and I've read in letters that you sent to me. First, many of you have asked, won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are still recovers from our involvement in iraq. A veteran put it more bluntly. This nation is sick and tired of war. My answer is simple. I will not put american boots on the ground in syria. I will not pursue an open-end ed action, like iraq or afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like libya or c koso kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to obtain a clear objective. Others have asked whether it's worth acting if we don't take out assad. Some members of congress have said, there's no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in syria. Let me make something clear. The united states military doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to assad that no other nation can deliver. I don't think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons. Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don't dismiss any threats. But the assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force. As well as the unshakable support of the united states of america. Many of you have asked a broader question. Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after assad may be enemies of human rights. It's true that some of assad's opponents are extremists. But al qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic syria, if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the syrian people, and the syrian opposition we work with, just want to live in peace. With dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those that reject the forces of tyranny and extremism. Finally, many of you have asked, why not leave this to other countries? Or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, we should tholt be the world's policemen. I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations, but chemical weapons were still used by the assad regime. However, over the last few days, we've seen some encouraging signs. In part, because of the credible threat of u.S. Military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with president putin, the russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing assad to give up his chemical weapons. The assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons and even said they join the chemical weapons convention, which prohibits their use. It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, 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. Particularly because russia is one of assad's strongest allies. I have therefore asked the leaders of congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force, while we pursue this diplomatic path. I'm sending secretary of state john kerry to meet his russian counterpart on thursday and i will continue my own discussions with president putin. I've spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, france and the united kingdom, and we will work together in consultation with russia and china to put forward a resolution at the u.N. Security council, requiring assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control. We'll also give u.N. Inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on AUGUST 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies, from europe to the americas, from asia to the middle east, who agree on the need for action. Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight, I give thanks, again, to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices. My fellow americans, for nearly seven decades, the united states has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burde of leadership are often heavy. But the world's a better place because we have bourn them. And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to america's military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people, with those images of children, in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough. Indeed, I'd ask every member of congress and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack. And then ask, 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. Franklin roosevelt once said, our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged. Our ideals and principles, as well as our initial security, are at stake, in syria. Along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America's not the world's policemen. Terrible things happen across the globe. And it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when with modest effort and risk, we can stop children being gassed to death? And thereby make our own children safer? I believe we should act. That's what makes america different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. Thank you, god bless you, and god bless the united states of america. And there you have the president, still making a case for u.S. Action against syria, even as a negotiation is on the table. However, saying that he has asked the leaders of congress to postpone any vote to see if those negotiations work. So, les go back to jon tathan karl at the white house. This is about u.S. Leadership on the world stage. What does the white house want to happen now? Reporter: Well, there is so much at stake here for the president. He asked congress to postpone that vote at a time when he was going to lose that vote in congress. Now, so much rides on this diplomatic effort. What he wants, above all, is to be able to go forward and see that diplomatic effort without being cut off here at home by a congress saying they would not support him if he chose to attack. And back now to martha raddatz, chief global affairs correspondent. Martha, what is the view at the pentagon about the russian deal, first of all, and what is your thought tonight about keeping the finger on the trigger, someone said, to jonathan karl, earlier, in keeping the u.S. Military at alert? Reporter: Well, I think they have to stay on alert, diane. And the president made a case for this military strike, the threat of a military strike, to stay in play. I think the pentagon, everybody's hopeful about some sort of diplomatic solution. But the bottom line here is, tonight, diane, it is highly unlikely that in the coming weeks or months, there will be a military strike on syria, because of these delays, if ever. So, is it possible to say it's over, this threat of a military strike? Reporter: Oh, I don't think you can say it's over, but it is delayed for weeks, if not months, unless this diplomatic deal falls completely apart, very quickly. All right, let's go now to terry moran, who is senior foreign correspondent, he's over in beirut, lebanon, right now. And terry, again, I was saying, this is about u.S. Leadership on the world stage, how is this seen, how will this speech be seen and these actions be seen tonight in the eyes of the world? Reporter: Well, diane, there are two things you hear a lot in this part of the world. First, you recognize the catastrophic calamity to american credibility that the claims about iraq's weapons of mass destruction were. People don't believe this president or this administration when they talk about this attack ON AUGUST 21st. And they want to see and hear real evidence, not the claims of the secretary of state or even the president. The other thing is that people in this part of the world respond to strong leadership. And you hear around, these words about obama that he's hesitant, indecisive, he's been outmaneu outmaneuvered. So, this is a real problem for the united states, going forward, being clear, backing up its claims with evidence and with credible action, as well. All right, terry moran, standing watch for us tonight from the region. And again, it's about 4:00 in the morning, a little after 4:00 in the morning in syria. We have no evidence that the president's speech was shown on television there, and we will await word to see what bashar al assad, some 6,000 miles away, has to say from his palace in damascus. And for right now, we will return you to your regular programming. For some of you in the west, that's "world news." I'll see you there. And we'll have more on the crisis in syria with terry moran from beirut, later tonight on "nightline" and, of course, tomorrow on "good morning america," as well. And we hope you continue the conversation with us right now on the abc news facebook page, online. I'm diane sawyer. To all of you, a good night. This has been a special report from abc news.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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