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Il Fatto Quotidiano, Italy

Obama Open to Russia’s
Proposal but Taken Aback by Public Opinion

By Roberto Festa

The U.S. president is keeping an open mind regarding Moscow’s proposal to ask Damascus to put its arsenal of chemical weapons under international control. But the fact is, Obama has discovered the coalition has stolen domestic control of the situation right from under him. Meanwhile, Americans are increasingly opposed to an attack.

Translated By Teresa Sorbera

10 September 2013

Edited by Eva Langman

Italy - Il Fatto Quotidiano - Original Article (Italian)

“A possible turning point.”* This is how Barack Obama defined the Russian proposal to bring Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control. During the filming of six interviews with major American television networks, the U.S. president embraced the Russian mediation as a “potentially positive development,” even if he specified that the United States would maintain military pressure on Damascus for the moment. There has already been a first positive response to Russia’s diplomatic initiative. Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, decided to postpone the test vote to authorize a military strike.

“John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious?” explained Obama during an interview with CNN. He explained, “It’s unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat.”

“It’s possible if it’s real,” added Obama, considering Russia’s offer with reservations. Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical arms under international control was immediately accepted by Damascus.

One of the most difficult and surprising days for U.S. and international diplomacy ends with a big question mark about the future. The proposal to put Assad’s government under international control was actually first proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry while in London. He said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” Kerry’s suggestion, conceived perhaps to give the impression of moderation — but without any real initiative for mediation — was immediately seized upon by Russia’s own minister of foreign affairs, Sergey V. Lavrov, stirring up a chorus of consensus not only in Syria, but also in France, Great Britain and the offices of the United Nations. Realizing that he went a bit too far, a spokesperson for John Kerry clarified that he was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons.

Instead, the proposal made by the United States has gone forward, although it does not have the support of the American public and now greatly risks causing problems for Obama’s administration, whose troubles are at an all-time high. For this reason, the president, during the six interviews he took part in over the past few days, had to explain that the United States would not close the door to the Russian proposal and would take it into consideration with “a grain of salt,” even if the alternative — military action — remained on the table. “Unfortunately, the track record to date is — including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons — doesn’t give you a lot of confidence,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken.

“There is no reason to believe that Syria would start to act in a way that would inspire confidence at this time,”* reflected the White House’s spokesperson Jay Carney.

Furthermore, Obama’s administration cannot give the impression that it supports Lavrov’s proposal right away — it would risk losing its credibility abroad and being recognized for the decisive role it played in the crisis involving Vladimir Putin. However, it is true that putting Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons under international control would allow the administration to pull out of the Syrian crisis predicament with its reputation relatively unscathed. Support for an attack in Syria has failed to gain a following in the United States. Six out of 10 Americans are against the intervention. Despite many days of pressure, many senators, but especially many members of Congress, remain undecided or openly against the attack. A quick calculation of the numbers showed that only 42 members of Congress would be inclined to accept the request to strike Syria at this time, while 238 members of Congress are against the idea and 153 are undecided.

Thus Obama seems destined to suffer a probable resounding defeat before Congress. For this reason, any new political developments should be considered with skepticism, but should nonetheless be taken into consideration. This was evidenced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a veteran politician who initially scheduled a test vote for Wednesday but who has now postponed this in order to “promote diplomatic discussions.”*

“I don’t think we need to see how fast we can do this. We have to see how well we can do this,” explained Reid. The deferment of the Senate vote means that the House’s ruling will also be postponed and the administration will have a few extra days to assess the pros and cons for an intervention — an intervention that the majority of Americans do not support and which Obama had initially embraced with perhaps excessive conviction. In the meantime, the president will address the nation on prime time television this evening. Obama’s speech will likely swing between the two poles that now frame U.S. policy toward Assad’s regime. Obama’s speech, which will be full of seemingly threatening military rhetoric, will also present a wait-and-see policy that is far more cautious, in search of a diplomatic solution.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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