By Mike Lillis - 09/15/13 02:10 PM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin, not President Obama, is in charge as the two countries forge ahead with a nascent deal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, the GOP chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said Sunday.
"Putin is in a unique position, rather than the president, to get this done because of his leverage over [Bashar] Assad and over Syria," Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said in an interview with the "Fox News Sunday" program. "Putin has now come forward as a leader, and he owns this now, and I believe that gives us the greatest ability to get this thing done."
McCaul said he's hopeful the agreement between the United States and Russia will preclude the need for military strikes – "It can be done without a shot fired," he said. But McCaul was quick to push back against the notion that Obama deserves credit for the last week's diplomatic breakthrough.
"I quite frankly think what won the day here is that Putin looked in his own backyard and realized that the policies that he saw in Egypt and Libya [were] going to happen in Syria. … He decided that it was time to step in and fix the problem," McCaul said. "I would … caution this administration to not do a victory lap here."
Appearing on the same program, Rep. Chris Van Hollen strongly disagreed. The Maryland Democrat trumpeted Obama's role in managing the crisis, arguing that Russia would never have offered the diplomatic option without the president's clear threat of force.
"We would not be at this point had it not been for the president's credible threat of the use force," Van Hollen told Fox. "That's what brought the Russians to the table [and] that's what brought Assad to the table.
"Putin was sitting there powerless – this is his big ally in the Middle East – powerless to stop a potential limited U.S. strike," Van Hollen added. "He helped deliver to the president everything that we wanted. … Let's not kid ourselves as to why this happened."
The new agreement – announced Saturday morning by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after several days of talks in Geneva – propelled the Syria debate into a new realm after weeks when Obama appeared at the verge of launching military strikes in response to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians.
Under their agreement, Syria must submit an inventory of its chemical weapons within a week, international inspectors must be allowed in the country by mid-November, and Assad's entire stockpile must be eliminated by the middle of next year.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats welcomed the terms, expressing cautious optimism that it could eliminate Assad's chemical cache without a military intervention.
"Thanks to President Obama’s steadfast leadership, we are making significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, a pillar of our national security, through diplomatic efforts," Pelosi said in a statement.
But others on Capitol Hill fear that the terms of the agreement, because they don't include automatic triggers authorizing sanctions and military action if Syria fails to comply, threatening the effectiveness of the effort to disarm Assad. Instead, non-compliance would send the issue to the United Nations Security Council, where both Russia and China have vetoed past efforts to hold Assad to account.
"Absent the threat of force, it's unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saturday in a statement. "I'm still reviewing the details and believe Syria's willingness to follow through is very much an open question."
Van Hollen said Sunday that the conditions of the deal "are verifiable and can be reached."
McCaul was also optimistic, but reiterated that Obama's powers to make the deal successful are limited.
"The Russians have the most leverage over Syria and Assad, and can be the most effective," he said.