Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Senate sets aside resolution on military strike against Syria

The Senate on Wednesday at least temporarily put aside a resolution to authorize the use of force against Syria as the Obama administration appealed for patience while it explored Russia's proposal to monitor and ultimately destroy Syria's chemical weapons.

Some senior lawmakers continued to discuss whether to amend President Obama's pending request for authorization to reflect the new circumstances. But Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate would move on to other issues, as Obama had urged in his nationally televised address Tuesday night, so as "not to tread water" while the administration tests the viability of the Russian initiative.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry will take a team of weapons and disarmament experts to Geneva for meetings Thursday and Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the State Department said. Lavrov is expected to bring his team of experts to discuss a proposal that has so far been presented in only the barest terms.

"I would characterize it more as ideas than as a lengthy packet," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of missives that have arrived from Moscow since Lavrov announced the offer, which received quick agreement from the Syrian government, on Monday.

"Part of this effort is to figure out how to make the destruction effort logistically and technically possible" in the midst of Syria's raging civil war, Psaki said. "It would be challenging."

In addition to holding Congress at bay, the administration deflected action at the U.N. Security Council, where France appeared to have jumped the gun early Tuesday with a proposed resolution tying a Syrian agreement to surrender its chemical weapons to authorization for international military action if President Bashar al-Assad reneged.

After Russian President Vladi­mir Putin announced that there would be no deal under the threat of military force, the five veto-wielding council members — Russia and China on one side and Britain, France and the United States on the other — also seemed to be treading water in a closed-door meeting in New York on Wednesday. No further action was announced.

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are expected to release a report Monday that reinforces U.S. and European claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats. The report will not directly accuse the Syrian regime, the diplomats said. But it will offer a strong circumstantial case that points in the direction of Syrian government culpability.

"I know they have gotten very rich samples, biomedical and environmental, and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," a senior Western official said. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got." The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the U.N. team but said that "you can conclude from the type of evidence" the identity of the perpetrator.

Obama's address Tuesday — in which he said he would test the Russian offer while keeping the threat of a U.S. military strike against Syria alive — left many perplexed.

"I really do think they've hurt our credibility around the world just in the muddled way that they have dealt with this Syria issue," Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.

Before the Russian offer, Obama had scheduled a lunch with Republicans and the Tuesday address to press an increasingly reluctant Congress to approve military action against the Syrian regime.

Most Republicans at the lunch, Corker said, "would have believed last night he was going to make the greater case, the strategic case for us in Syria. I heard no word — not one word of it. . . . He just cannot follow through. He cannot speak to the nation as commander in chief. He cannot speak to the world as commander in chief. He just cannot do it."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was among those arguing that Obama should change his original appeal to Congress from an authorization to use force to punish Assad for chemical weapons use and deter him from doing it again, to threatening a strike if Syria cheats on an agreement to destroy its chemical weapons.

"Assad and his Russian backers . . . are unlikely to follow through if that threat does not remain credible," Levin said in a breakfast meeting with reporters. The result, he said, would be to push them closer to an eventual political settlement of Syria's civil war.

While the administration claimed credit for using the threat of a military strike to force Russia and Syria to the bargaining table over chemical weapons, it does not want that same threat to drive them away before a weapons deal can be tested.

"We are doing the responsible thing here," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
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