Obama asks Congress to delay vote on use of force in Syria

President also orders US military to maintain posture, pressure Assad

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President Barack Obama told Americans Tuesday night that he has asked lawmakers to delay a vote on military strikes against Syria, which Obama has advocated to punish the government of President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

However, Obama also said he has "ordered our military to maintain their current posture" in an attempt to keep pressure on Assad, whose forces are accused of using chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. Assad denies the accusations.

Obama's speech comes amid heated debate over his administration's push for a military response to the alleged poison gas attack in the country's two-year-old civil war and just hours after the president signaled he would be receptive to United Nations talks about a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

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Obama also used his speech from the East Room of the White House to make a case for why acting in Syria was in the interest of U.S. national security.

The president said that inaction could embolden Assad to potentially use chemical weapons again, and he said that "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice" about acquiring and using poison gas.

"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," Obama said.

The president also said that a spillover from fighting in Syria could threaten U.S. allies including Jordan, Turkey and Israel. He said that failing to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons would embolden Iran Iran with regard to its nuclear program, which the U.S. opposes.

A report from U.N. Human Rights Council investigators released early Wednesday morning highlighted the complexity of the conflict.

The investigators -- who were not allowed to enter Syria -- wrote in the report that Syrian rebels and foreign fighters have committed war crimes, including executions, hostage-taking and shelling civilians areas.

The diplomatic solution, suggested by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, would require Syria's government to destroy all of its chemical weapons or put the weapons under international control.

According to Reuters, Russia formally delivered its plan on Syria's chemical weapons to the U.S on Wednesday.

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Obama said that it was "too early to tell" if the Russian proposal could succeed but that he was open to giving it a chance. 

"I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path," Obama said. He did not specify a time period.

Assad has seemed receptive to the Russian proposal, but a planned closed-door meeting at the U.N. to discuss the plan was canceled Tuesday after Russia withdrew its request for the meeting.

France, meanwhile, said it planned to submit a U.N. Security Council resolution that demands that Damascus comply with calls to destroy or dismantle its chemical weapons program. That resolution would demand that Syria make a complete declaration of its chemical weapons program within 15 days, Reuters reported.

According to Reuters, the draft adds that in the event of non-compliance by the Syrian authorities, the international community would seek "further necessary measures under Chapter VII" of the U.N. charter. Chapter 7 of the charter covers the Security Council's power to take steps ranging from sanctions to military intervention.

The Obama administration has repeatedly cautioned that a diplomatic solution may not be enough to address the situation in Syria.

Obama and his allies have argued to the American public and world leaders that the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria's government constitutes serious-enough violations of human rights that an intervention is morally justified.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other Obama administration officials suggested last week that any military intervention would be limited and would not include U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.

But despite wide agreement within the U.S. and among world leaders that Assad's government used chemical weapons against citizens, Obama has encountered significant resistance in his quest for approval of any military action.

Many Congressional Republicans and some Democrats have said they would not support military strikes. And while some 33 other nations have signed a statement calling for a strong international action, Obama has struggled to find allies willing to commit military power to a response.

Reaction to speech

Reaction to Obama's address Tuesday night included criticism from Republicans.

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus called the president's handling of Syria embarrassing.

"The administration's handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it's disappointed even the president's most ardent supporters," he said. "His rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage."

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Obama did not go far enough to support the opposition in Syria. They bemoaned a lack of a plan to "test the seriousness" of the Russian proposal.

"We regret … that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that "the president justly made clear tonight that the threat of military action remains on the table as we continue to work to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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