Did Obama stumble into – or engineer – the Syria deal?

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 10, 2013 

— 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.

On the House of Representatives side, members of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees were filing in to a closed-door briefing on Syria and wanted to hear more.

“I’m skeptical of the Russians and Putin – I’m skeptical of them holding the balance,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., fresh from a White House visit where he heard former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mention the deal.

Yet by 5 p.m., when members of the full House discarded their cellphones and staff for a classified closed-door briefing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the potential deal had emerged as a potential lifeline and alternative to military strikes – or having to vote on military strikes.

“It may be a game-changer,” said Rep. Jim Moran, a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia who said he wasn’t relishing an authorization vote in the House. If it were held this week, Moran said he’d buck the sentiments of his constituents and vote for authorization.

By 6:06 p.m., Reid slammed the brakes on a Senate vote and aides acknowledged the seriousness of the diplomacy effort as the reason.

“I don’t think we need to see how fast we can do this,” Reid said. “We have to see how well we can do this matter.”

By Monday night, Obama conceded that he was no longer confident he could prevail in Congress. When he first said he’d go to Congress, aides predicted he’d have the votes.

Now, he was taking credit for the proposed deal, saying that it was a result of U.S. pressure on Syria and that it had come up in his talks with Putin at the G20 summit the previous week in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“These are conversations that I’ve had directly with Mr. Putin,” he told CNN. “When I was at the G20, we had some time to discuss this. And I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria or anyplace else.”

“This is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time,” Obama told PBS in another interview.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told PBS Monday night that the subject had been discussed in previous talks between Kerry and Lavrov.

“There is reason to believe that this is not something which was done completely extemporaneously,” he said.

He offered no details and later in the interview called it a “response to what the secretary of state of the United States said.”

Carney by Tuesday was stressing prior U.S. involvement. The Russian proposal, he told MSNBC Tuesday morning, “is something that we have been discussing with the Russians, Secretary Kerry with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the president with President Putin in St. Petersburg just on Friday.”

In Moscow, Putin’s spokesman told reporters on Tuesday that Obama and Putin had discussed the idea on the sidelines of the G20 summit last week.

“The issue was discussed,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian agencies as saying in response to the question of who initiated the proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to avoid a U.S. strike.

But Peskov didn’t say who initiated the idea. "We’re not disclosing the contents of the conversation," he said.

Lavrov called the plan “not entirely a Russian initiative,” Russian outlets reported Tuesday. He said the idea had “emerged from the contacts we had with American colleagues, from yesterday’s statement by John Kerry, who allowed for the possibility to avoid strikes if this problem can be solved."

Anita Kumar and James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com;wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; twitter:@lesleyclark; @williamgdouglas

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