September 10, 2013

Talking diplomacy in Syria, Obama goes to Congress


Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Pushing military might and hoping it won’t be needed, President Barack Obama angled to end the impasse over Syria on Tuesday by pressing his case for U.S. airstrikes against Bashar Assad’s regime as he held out hope of a diplomatic solution under which Syria surrenders its chemical weapons. Seizing on that opening, a bipartisan group of senators crafted a reworked congressional resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons by a set deadline and allowing military action if that doesn’t happen.

The U.S. maneuvering played out as Syria said it has accepted a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control for dismantling.

Obama was traveling to Capitol Hill to meet separately with Democratic and Republican senators after signaling in interviews that the diplomatic track could eliminate the risks of a repeat chemical attack without requiring American intervention. He was poised to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday night, still planning to press the case for congressionally-approved military action if diplomacy fails.

“The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don’t just trust, but we also verify,” Obama told CBS. “The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed.”

The dramatic shift in the president’s tone came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and in the face of stiff resistance in Congress to any resolution that would authorize him to use military force. For the first time Monday, a majority of senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction were expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House was far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting Obama’s plan by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.

A bipartisan group of eight senators started writing an alternative resolution that would call on the United Nations to state that Syria used chemical weapons and require a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons from Syria within a specific time period, possibly 60 days. If that can’t be done, then Obama would have the authority to launch military strikes, congressional aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the reworked resolution.

The senators working on the proposal are Republicans John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss along with Democrats Chris Coons, Bob Casey, Chuck Schumer, Carl Levin and Bob Menendez.

The prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough continued to rapidly unfold. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to “thwart the U.S. aggression.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. was still awaiting key details of the proposal, but acknowledged that there were signs of potential progress.

“Before this morning, the Syrian government had never even acknowledged they possessed chemical weapons. Now they have,” Carney said in an interview on MSNBC.

For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an “out” as it struggled to find the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama’s call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing “international discussions.”

Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, complained of reversals and inconsistent administration explanations, saying, “I’m going to start looking for medication ... this place is a zoo.”

McKeon said he and other lawmakers had a classified briefing Monday with top Obama national security advisers in which they portrayed the Russian initiative as less than serious — then later heard the president had said it would be considered. “This message seems to be changing mid-sentence. ... This is a joke.”

Russia, Assad’s biggest international backer, championed the path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is now working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action, which will be presented shortly. Lavrov said that Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan together with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

McKeon said the administration and members of Congress were looking for “some kind of straw” to put off military action, with Congress and the country so opposed.

“There are people that are looking for any way out of this,” he said. On the Russian plan, he said: “I doubt that the administration takes it too seriously, but they’ll explore it. They have to.”

In his interviews, Obama conceded he might lose the vote in Congress and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected him. But, he told CBS, he didn’t expect a “succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” a stunning reversal after days of furious lobbying and dozens of meetings and telephone calls with individual lawmakers.

The resolution approved by a Senate committee would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition this week, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote “no.” Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.

Lawmakers emerging from a classified briefing late Monday with Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration was skeptical of the Russian offer but had not ruled it out. Rice told lawmakers that she had spent two-plus years battling Russia at the United Nations, where Moscow vetoed all resolutions condemning the Assad government.

Obama, who said he discussed the potential plan for Syria to surrender its chemical stockpiles with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, was guarded in his assessment of its chance of success.

“There are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria,” he said. “It’s one of the largest in the world. Let’s see if they’re serious.”

But having committed to seeking congressional approval, Obama may have few other immediate options. Unable to confidently push for a vote, and fearful of what the impact of strikes without approval would mean for his final three years in office, diplomacy offers at least a pause for him while he seeks broader support.

Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Republican hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said concrete steps from Moscow were needed to prove its seriousness, including a binding Security Council resolution at the United Nations.

“The fear is it’s a delaying tactic and the Russians are playing us like a fiddle along with Assad,” Graham told reporters.