Obama loosens demands on U.N. resolution on Syria

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WASHINGTON -- In a sign of its weak hand in the Syria crisis, the Obama administration has abandoned for now its hope of winning U.N. authorization for the use of force against President Bashar Assad's government if it fails to surrender its chemical weapons.

Facing steadfast Russian resistance, officials said Friday that they would accept a United Nations resolution that imposed weaker penalties such as economic sanctions and allowed for the Security Council to reconsider the use of force if Mr. Assad did not live up to his promises.

The shift, described by administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, appeared to be an acknowledgment of the likelihood that Security Council members Russia and China would veto the use of force, and of the overall lack of international support for military strikes to punish Mr. Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

But President Barack Obama's effort to retain the option to launch military action in response to the Aug. 21 attack, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, may have received a boost in comments from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr. Ban said an upcoming report by U.N. experts would show strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons. A U.N.-based diplomat said the report would build a circumstantial case that the Syrian military was responsible.

Whether the international community retains the option to use force has become the focus of diplomacy. Syria and its allies in Russia surprisingly announced this week that Mr. Assad's government would give up its chemical weapons and sign an international treaty that prohibits them.

France announced it was crafting a U.N. resolution that would authorize the use of force if Mr. Assad reneged on the pledge, which the Russians immediately rejected. On Thursday, Mr. Assad said he wouldn't hand over his chemical weapons unless the U.S. stopped arming rebels seeking to overthrow his government.

Negotiations are likely to drag on now for some time. Administration officials say they expect a conclusion in weeks, not months.

The U.N. report may be released as early as Monday.

Appearing at a U.N. meeting he thought was private, Mr. Ban said into an open microphone that he believed the inspectors would deliver "an overwhelming, overwhelming report that chemical weapons [were] used, even though I cannot publicly say [so] at this time, before I receive the report."

Because of the faulty intelligence the George W. Bush administration relied on in justifying the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. officials have faced tough questions from other governments, in Congress and from the U.S. public about its accusations that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons.

But if the evidence of Syrian responsibility is strong, and if Syria fails to live up to its promises, Mr. Obama could gain more international backing for his arguments that force is needed.

Also Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met for a second day in Geneva to work out a process for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. They said they also discussed how to move back into long-stalled negotiations on how to end Syria's civil war.

Even so, diplomats and analysts said enormous obstacles remained.

National polls show six in 10 Americans are against military action in Syria.

The sailors and Marines who frequent Rodney McKeithan's barbershop in Norfolk, Va., for example, are so exhausted that they often fall asleep in the chair while he shears their close crops even shorter.

"They're drained when they come in," said Mr. McKeithan, 45, a retired Navy ship serviceman who operates shops near the Norfolk naval station, the nation's largest. "They talk all the time about how tired they are."

Mr. McKeithan, who ended 20 years of Navy service in 2007 and keeps a photo of himself in sailor whites beside his barber chair, opposes military strikes against Syria. Most of his clients do, too, he said, after enduring extended cruises up to 10 months, truncated holidays and exhausting six-day weeks preparing for the next cruise.

"My heart goes out to the people dying over there," he said of the Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. "But we've got to look out for our guys. We're stretched here."

In part, that opposition reflects the toll that more than a decade of wars has wrought on a region that has one of the nation's highest concentrations of active-duty residents. War is intensely personal to almost everyone who lives here, even those who aren't in the military. They know someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, or came home damaged, or is dealing with war's aftereffects of grief and turmoil.

"We've had so many funerals. So many memorials. So many injured people," said Ouida Johnson, 59, of Virginia Beach, a legal assistant.

Both a strike against Syria and doing nothing seem like bad propositions to her.

"I'm nervous either way," she said. "I don't want to do anything that leaves us vulnerable. But I don't want to go to another war. I'm warred out."


The Washington Post contributed.


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