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September 16, 2013

Lawmakers debate whether U.S. outfoxed

Obama says ‘foundation’ set for conflict settlement

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers assessing the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons argued Sunday about whether President Barack Obama was outfoxed by the Russians and had lost leverage in trying to end the civil war, or whether his threat of military action propelled the breakthrough.

Obama said the turn to diplomacy had laid “a foundation” toward political settlement of the conflict.

The deal announced Saturday in Geneva by U.S. and Russian diplomats sets an ambitious timetable for elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, with rapid deadlines including complete inventory of its chemical arsenal within a week and immediate access by international inspectors to chemical weapons sites.

The agreement came in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus, the capital, that the U.S. believes was carried out by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Republican lawmakers said that committing to remove or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was laudable, but the agreement fell short by not mandating military action should Assad fail to comply.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. is “being led by the nose by” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“So if we wanted a transition with Assad, we just fired our last round, and we have taken our ability to negotiate a settlement from the White House, and we’ve sent it with Russia to the United Nations,” Rogers, R-Mich., said. “That’s a dangerous place for us to be if you want an overall settlement to the problems.”

Russia, which already has rejected three resolutions on Syria, would be sure to veto a U.N. move toward military action, and U.S. officials said they did not contemplate seeking such an authorization.

Obama said Saturday that “if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” and Secretary of State John Kerry warned during a visit to Israel on Sunday that “the threat of force is real” if Assad fails to live up to the terms of the agreement.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the threat of force “is still very much in Russian hands.”

“That’s the most important element, is the veto piece,” Corker said. “So in many ways, our credibility in the region, and certainly relative to the chemical warfare, is very much driven by Russia, which has its hands firmly on the steering wheel.”

Democrats insisted that while the agreement itself doesn’t commit the U.S. to using force, the option of acting independently of the U.N. remains.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia’s primary aim has been to force the U.S. to give up that option. “Russia has failed in that goal,” Levin said.  

To Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the threat of American military action is “the only reason we’ve gotten to this point, even to this possibility.”

Obama said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that if Syria can be stopped from using chemical weapons, “then we may also have a foundation” to begin the process of reaching a political settlement to civil war.

The president’s interview aired Sunday but was taped Friday, before the chemical weapons deal was reached but while Secretary of State John Kerry was engaged in intense talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Obama said Putin is “protecting” Assad and doesn’t share American “values” in Syria. “He has a different attitude about the Assad regime,” Obama said. “But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad’s in power, there is going be some sort of conflict there.”

The U.S. says intelligence reports have placed the blame on the Assad government for the attack last month, and that prompted Obama to ready American airstrikes on his order, until he announced on Aug. 31 that he would first ask for authorization from Congress. But amid growing skepticism among lawmakers and opposition from the U.S. public, he asked lawmakers to delay a vote while giving negotiations with the Russians time to play out.

Rogers spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Corker and Levin were on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and Menendez appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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