Obama opens narrow window for diplomatic action in Syria

Hannah Allam

Obama’s decision to shelve attack plans pending a vote from Congress opens a narrow door for diplomacy, though it’s unclear whether any side would negotiate now after a bitter buildup and competing claims of chemical weapons use.

Obama is due in St. Petersburg on Wednesday to take part in the Group of 20 summit, where his Syria plans are sure to be hotly debated. Host country Russia has blocked previous attempts to censure the Assad regime at the U.N. Security Council, and it’s unclear whether Obama would be willing or able to negotiate a breakthrough with an in-person appeal during his visit.

As news broke of Obama’s decision to delay a strike, U.S. diplomats immediately began working the phones to reassure Syria opposition leaders who were undoubtedly disappointed at the delay in what had only a day before appeared to be imminent U.S. military intervention. Almost since the conflict began, outgunned Syrian rebels have beseeched Western powers for military backup to help weaken Assad’s forces.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmad Assi Jarba “to underscore President Obama’s commitment to holding the regime accountable for its chemical weapons attack against its own people on Aug. 21,” a senior State Department official said, on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol.

That was a day after Kerry delivered an impassioned speech making the case for a military intervention, promising that the U.S. would take a stand against the use of chemical weapons against “the defenseless Syrian people.”

Kerry also spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida “on the same issue,” the State Department official said. With no backup from Britain and only lukewarm support for an intervention from other European and Arab allies, U.S. officials now seem to be courting the Saudis and the Japanese in hopes of building at least a semblance of international cover for potential action.

“Secretary Kerry will continue making calls to consult with foreign leaders and counterparts on Syria throughout the day and in the days ahead,” the State Department official said.

By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Washington Bureau