WASHINGTON -- A potential international deal to seize Syria’s chemical weapons and avoid U.S. airstrikes comes after a dizzying run of events that raises the question: Did President Barack Obama stumble into a deal with Russia or was this the work of quiet diplomacy and closed-door talks?
At first, Obama was going to launch airstrikes on his own. Then he sought approval from Congress, a vote he thought he’d win. Then he appeared to be losing the American people and Congress. Finally, he sat down with the man he’d decided weeks before to shun, Russian President Vladimir Putin. And somehow in the last four days, Obama’s government opened the door to a deal with Putin – by design or by accident – that the much of the world rushed to embrace.
“For all the unpredictability of the last two weeks, (Obama) may squeak out a win from this,” said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You have the United States being with the world, instead of against it,” Alterman said. “You have the prospect of a real win of eliminating Syrian weapons. You have the prospect of potentially cooperating with Iran . . . and you avoid a vote that the president did not seem well positioned to win convincingly, if he won it at all.”
Weeks, even months in the making, the deal all started to accelerate Monday in London.
Seemingly off the cuff, Secretary of State John Kerry said U.S. airstrikes against Syria could be avoided if the Assad regime turned over “every single bit” of its chemical arsenal to international authorities by the end of the week. Treating it as a throwaway line, he added that President Bashar Assad “isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”
Was it a last-minute search for a deal? Obama, after all, was facing an American public dead set against his bid for airstrikes and a Congress likely to deal him an embarrassing blow by rejecting his surprise request for approval.
The State Department cast the secretary’s remarks as rhetorical comments on a highly improbable scenario.
At the same time, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the White House had just learned about the proposal and hadn’t had time to look at it or talk to the Russians. Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. would look at the proposal, saying it was prompted by the “intense pressure” the United States was putting on Assad.
Soon after Kerry spoke, Moscow was on the move, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposing that Syria place its stockpiles under international control to be dismantled. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem, who’d just met with Lavrov in Moscow, welcomed the proposal, which immediately became known as the Russian deal.
On Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were returning Monday from a summer recess, members were skeptical at best about Obama’s request for authorization for airstrikes.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced that the Senate would take a test vote on Wednesday. But the somber mood changed quickly as word of Kerry’s remarks and the proposed deal began to spread.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, was having lunch with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Senate Dining Room as news of the potential deal spread. She jumped on the apparent opening, issuing a statement she “would welcome” a request from Russia to the Assad regime to shift control of its chemical weapons to the international community.