Syria: Diplomatic disaster or triumph?

A full-fledged debate emerged Wednesday over whether Syria has turned into a diplomatic disaster or triumph for President Obama.

The White House portrayed a Russian proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons as a master stroke made possible only by Obama’s military threats.

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Critics say the administration bumbled its way into an illusory solution that will strengthen Russia’s hand in the Middle East and keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.

The administration’s own explanation of how the diplomatic solution came about has changed, raising questions about whether it emerged from off-the-cuff remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry or discussions between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Democratic lawmakers argue having Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over its arsenal to the international community would achieve Obama’s stated goal of preventing new attacks while avoiding sucking the United States into another Middle East conflict.

The proposal also puts the onus on Russia, Assad’s main weapons supplier, to play a useful diplomatic role.

“The ball’s in their court, and that’s where it belongs,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told The Hill. “Can they produce, or can they not produce?”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said the proposal “may turn out to be the best thing to come out of Russia since vodka.”

“An imperfect application of the Russian proposal is better than anything we can accomplish through the president’s [military] program,” he said.

Skeptics say the proposal empowers Putin and makes Obama look incompetent. And they have serious doubts about the feasibility of having U.N. experts collect, move and destroy a vast chemical weapons arsenal in the middle of a civil war.

“I’m worried that we have a game of rope-a-dope for a while, and the slaughter goes on,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading hawk on Syria, told reporters Wednesday. “I think if you were sitting in Putin’s seat, you would feel pretty good today.”

Some pundits suggest Obama knows the proposal is unworkable but is biding his time until public attention shifts elsewhere.

“The proposal, he must know, is absurd,” columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “But it will take time — weeks, months — for the absurdity to become obvious.”

Those critics say Obama had no choice but to jump on Putin’s lifeline after bungling his Syria policy for the past two-and-a-half years. They say the White House should have armed the rebels early on, taken tough action months ago when Assad first allegedly crossed the president’s chemical weapons “red line,” and built support with lawmakers before asking them to approve military action.

“It gets him off the hook of painting himself in the corner he did, drawing the red line that he did and then not acting,” said Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Jim Collins, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997-2001, told The Hill via email that the effort provided a real way forward on chemical weapons.

Collins, who now heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Obama administration should take “full advantage of the opening” to get support from Russia, the United Nations and other organizations to make sure Assad delivers.

“That possibility is on the table and should be fully exploited,” he said.

The last-minute proposal also preserves the chance, however remote, of a political settlement that Obama says is the only solution to the conflict that has been raging for more than two years.

Kerry put his credibility on the line earlier this year when he announced plans for a U.S.-Russian peace conference on Syria. The talks have been repeatedly postponed, and a U.S. strike could have killed any deal for good; instead, Kerry is headed to Geneva on Thursday to hash out a chemical weapons deal with his Russian counterpart.

Kerry has come under particular criticism, making a strong public case for forceful action only to have Obama unexpectedly call for congressional action. The nation’s top diplomat then called the pending U.S. strikes “unbelievably small,” only to have Obama contradict him in Tuesday’s address.

“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks,” Obama said.

Kerry has defended his diplomatic efforts, telling a House panel on Tuesday that talks with Russia about securing Syria’s chemical weapons was first broached by Obama and Putin on the margins of last week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

“I didn’t misspeak,” Kerry said of a proposal the State Department initially described as a “rhetorical” answer to a reporter’s question about what Syria could do to avoid a strike.

“I want to make sure everybody understands that President Obama and all of us would hope for a peaceful, diplomatic way to try to resolve this,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s a tough lift. And I don’t want people to think it’s easy, which is why we haven’t ballyhooed it in a bigger way.”

Mike Lillis contributed

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