WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday tentatively embraced a Russian diplomatic proposal to avert a U.S. military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government's chemical weapons. The move added new uncertainty to Obama's push to win support among allies, the American public and members of Congress for an attack.
He is expected to address the nation tonight.
In a series of television interviews with six cable and broadcast networks, Obama capped a remarkable day of presidential lobbying for military action and a dizzying series of developments at home and abroad. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said early Monday that Syria could avoid an attack by putting its chemical weapons in the hands of international monitors, an idea that was quickly praised by top officials in Syria and among some lawmakers in the United States.
"It's possible," Obama said on CNN of the Russian proposal, "if it's real."
Obama called the proposal a "significant breakthrough" in an interview with NBC Nightly News, and he said on PBS's News-Hour that he had discussed the plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit last week in Russia.
But after two weeks of pressing the need for a U.S. strike, Obama also said he remains skeptical that Syrian President Bashar Assad would agree to the idea. If he does, Obama told ABC News, he would "absolutely" hold off on a military strike.
"This may be a first step in what potentially could be an end to terrible bloodshed and millions of refugees throughout the region that is of deep concern to us and our allies," Obama said on CBS Evening News.
Obama's statements opening the door to the plan, which appeared to offer him an exit strategy for a military strike he had been reluctant to order, came as support on Capitol Hill for a resolution authorizing force was slipping. Even some lawmakers who had announced support for it reversed course.
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Monday evening that he would not force an initial vote on the resolution on Wednesday, slowing Senate consideration at least until next week. Democrats said they had enough votes to overcome a filibuster but possibly not enough to pass it.
The diplomatic advance came as evidence mounted that Obama's request for congressional approval for a strike remained widely unpopular, both in Congress and with the American people, despite a public push that has included impassioned presentations in recent days by Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, former secretary of state, made her first public comments supporting military action.
Informal counts found House members who said they planned to vote "no" far outnumbering those willing to say they would vote "yes," and a new McClatchy/Marist poll of U.S. public opinion showed nearly 3-1 opposition among registered voters to military action.
The sudden possibility of a diplomatic solution came as Assad launched a public relations campaign of his own, granting an interview to American television.
Speaking to interviewer Charlie Rose, Assad denied using chemical weapons and warned that if the U.S. struck Syria, "you should expect everything," apparently referring not only to potential retaliation from Syrian forces, but also to fallout from his allies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Obama said repeatedly that Assad does not have a "credible means to threaten the United States," but he acknowledged that Assad's allies, including Iran and Hezbollah, could engage in terrorist strikes against the United States.
Obama said on NewsHour that he and Putin had been talking about the proposal for Assad to surrender control of his chemical weapons "for quite some time."
The development, however, seemed to catch much of Washington unawares.
There were no further details on how such an undertaking could happen, especially the logistics of getting international inspectors to sites.
Obama said he knows he faces an uphill battle in persuading Americans to support the strikes. He said on PBS that he does not think he will convince the overwhelming majority of the American people that he should take action. Even members of his own family are "suspicious" of military intervention, he said. But, Obama said, he believes he can make a "very strong case" to the nation.
Obama made it clear that he recognizes that congressional authorization is by no means assured. "I wouldn't say I'm confident," he said on NBC.
Lawmakers, some of whom are opposed to the strikes, hailed the Russian proposal.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he saluted any diplomatic "effort to resolve this in a verifiable way and do it with dispatch."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, said she would welcome Syria's transfer of its chemical weapons to international monitors for destruction, to prevent a military strike.
But some lawmakers were skeptical.
"How would you know how many chemical weapons they turn over?" said Rep. Lynn Westmorlend, R-Ga.. "This is another ad lib statement someone gave in a speech.''
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times was used in this report.