Gearing up for a non-vote authorizing military force on Syria for using chemical weapons Aug. 21 killing hundreds of civilians, President Barack Obama now has his way out not only of intervening in Syria but more importantly a likely stinging defeat in Congress. Faced with a growing tsunami of negative public opinion, Congress was poised to slap down Obama on his request to take military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An 11th-hour deal suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry and brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to put al-Assad’s chemical arsenal in U.N. control has forced Obama to pivot on his national address tomorrow night. Expected to ask for a Congressional vote to authorize force, Obama will likely inform the public that his threats of taking military action have made al-Assad surrender his chemical weapons arsenal under Russian pressure.
When Obama met Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg Sept. 5-6, the two leaders barely exchanged words. Putin was steadfast in asking the U.S. to postpone any air strikes until after U.N. inspectors released their preliminary report on the use of chemical weapons Aug. 21. Putin wanted more proof than declassified information released by the U.S. government. Playing devil’s advocate, Putin refused to join the U.S. drumbeat to military action, urging Obama to hold off and put the matter before the U.N. Security Council. “But his cannot be another excuse for deal or obstruction,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, referring to Putin’s proposal. “And Russia has to support the international community’s efforts sincerely or be held to account,” said Hillary, adopting trust-but-verify Putin’s plan to place al-Assad’s arsenal under U.N. control.
Obama’s speech tomorrow will withdraw his request for Congress to vote on authorizing military action in Syria. Bringing up new developments by Putin, Barack will take a wait-and-see approach but, at the same time, take Congress—and himself—off the hook. Faced with the prospects of a “No” vote in the House, Obama has the perfect out now that Putin places his credibility on the line promising to get al-Assad to turn over his chemical arsenal to the U.N. While reluctant to make any concessions, Putin’s already stuck his neck out for al-Assad scrambling to stop a U.S. attack. Putin wouldn’t take the risks for al-Assad unless he could guarantee the results. Calling Putin’s plan a “significant breakthrough,” Barack will tell the nation that the U.S. will postpone military action, giving Putin and international community more time to resolve the Syrian crisis diplomatically and peacefully.
Putin’s plan to place al-Assad’s weapons in U.N. hands obviates the need for military action. “I don’t anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” said Obama, confirming that he’s withdrawing the request for Congress to debate and vote on Syrian air strikes. Obama put himself in a pickle after telling al-Assad in 2012 that chemical weapons used would be a “game-changer” or “red line” for the White House. After the horrific Aug. 21 poison gas attacks, Obama was pressed reluctantly to take military action. Instead of asserting his executive authority under the 1973 War Power Act, the President punted the decision Aug. 31 of authorizing air strikes to Congress, knowing they’d probably reject his request. Putin’s new “breakthrough,” as Obama calls it, gets the president off the hook by sparing him a likely political defeat in Congress.
When Obama faces the nation tomorrow night, he’ll claim his credible threat of military action prompted Putin to pressure al-Assad into making concessions on his chemical weapons. “I think what we’re seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of countries around the world, has give them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move,” said Obama. Taking heat from the international community to at least acknowledge that al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, Putin jumped at the chance to flex his diplomacy muscle, brokering the new chemical weapons arrangement and averting U.S. air strikes. With a Russian navy base at Tartus on the Syrian coast, Putin had a lot to lose backing al-Assad when proof comes out from U.N inspectors that Syria used Sarin nerve gas.
When Obama faces the nation Tuesday night, he’ll withdraw his request to have Congress debate and vote on military action against Syria. When he decided to put the question to Congress Aug. 31, it was Barack’s way of backing down from his “red line” promise of using force. When it became clear he’d face a humiliating defeat in Congress over using force, Kerry proposed to his Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia pressure al-Assad to put his chemical weapons arsenal in U.N. control. Meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, Lavrov said Syria would seriously consider the proposal. Showing skepticism, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France President Francois Hollande all applauded Putin’s move. Whether Putin’s proposal gains traction or not, it’s a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.