It's possible President Barack Obama is receiving a political assist from the world leader he has one of the most prickily relationships with, as Russia is spearheading a diplomatic effort to get Syrian President Bashar Assad to turn over control of his chemical weapons cache to the international community.
The diplomatic landscape shifted dramatically Tuesday as Russia and Syria agreed to a proposal that for the first time admitted the Syrian regime possessed chemical weapons and would turn over control of them to another party, though the details remain vague.
"We're waiting for that proposal, but we're not waiting for long," said Secretary of State John Kerry at a congressional hearing Tuesday of the potential deal. He added that it was the United States' "credible threat of force" that led to new developments.
"We are going to have to make sure the chemical weapons are moved and taken out," Kerry said.
Obama had spoken with both French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron about the pending diplomatic effort and agreed to work with Russia and China to put together a U.N. Security Council resolution, Kerry said.
And a White House official told The Associated Press that such an effort might deter Obama from pursuing a military strike in Syria.
But it remains unclear if pro-Assad Russia and China will find common ground with the United States or if such a proposal is truly feasible.
"The real problem is it just strikes most experts as impractical to somehow identify, locate and destroy Syria's chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war," says Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East. "Syria bombed Damascus today, for example, so the war has gone on even as we've had this debate over chemical weapons."
Singh says Obama – who is scheduled to address the nation Tuesday at 9 p.m. – should continue his push to win over public and congressional support for potential military strikes.
"The best that might be said about the Russia initiative right now is that it might give the president some time and space for the president to reposition himself in a better way than he is right now," Singh says. "But you also don't want to have it tie your hands or delay things or work things in any way to the Syrian regime's advantage."
Politically, Obama has been on the losing side of the public relations fight over whether or not the U.S. should involve itself militarily in Syria, following a report of a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including more than 400 children. Graphic videos of victims of the attack that showed many gasping for breath, foaming at the mouth and shaking, were posted online by the Senate Intelligence Committee over the weekend.
Singh says the diplomatic option floated by Russia will either postpone Obama's call for an unpopular strike altogether or give him time to continue to make his case.
"This offers a way for President Obama to reverse his fortunes, to reverse the momentum which has been going against him, but it's by no means a silver bullet," he says. "Regardless of how the White House spins it, I think most people will see this as a political godsend for Obama because he was undoubtably facing an embarrassing defeat in the House and potentially in the Senate."
Obama is scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon to meet with senators on both sides of the aisle and discuss the on-going situation.
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