Updated at 4:15 pm EDT
Two weeks ago today, President Barack Obama stood in the Rose Garden of the White House threatening U.S. military action against Syria for its evident deployment of chemical weapons killing more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children.
The U.S., the president said, is “prepared to strike whenever we choose… I’m prepared to give that order.” Yet a congressional debate was warranted, he said, in order for the U.S. to speak with a strong and united voice. “I know well that we are weary of war,” said Obama, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, before his election to the Senate and then the presidency. “But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”
Remarkably, the top Republican leaders of the House swiftly concurred with a president with whom they had been battling across an array of domestic issues for nearly five years, and in the Democratic-run Senate a vote of military authorization was mustered at the Foreign Relations Committee in a 10-7 vote.
The American public, it turned out, was not so ready.
In the first week of public debate alone, public opposition surged by 15 percentage points, the Pew Research Center and USA Today found in a Sept. 4-8 survey: with the share of Americans surveyed opposing U.S. air strikes against Syria growing from 48 to 63 percent Forty-five percent of those surveyed through that first weekend following Obama’s announcement said they opposed air strikes “very strongly — roughly three-times the percentage (16) that strongly favored air strikes.
As it grew clearer that the congressional authority Obama announced on Aug. 31 that he would seek for the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 wouldn’t come as quickly as House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor had rallied to his side, Secretary of State John Kerry flew off to London.
And there, Kerry dropped an off-handed comment that may have averted any military action: If the Syrians would forfeit their chemical weapons, there would be no need for this debate about U.S. military intervention in a Syrian civil war. The Russians, an arms supplier to Syria, immediately seized upon the notion.
Syria, too, agreed to this conversation about weapons whose existence President Bashar al-Assad had denied in an interview with Charlie Rose.
At the same time, Obama still was making his case for holding Syria accountable militarily, should negotiations fail.
So off to Geneva went Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Since the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons, though not the possession, while lacking any enforcement provisions, Nazi Germany and later Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had gone on to deploy them. Syria was a signatory of that protocol in effect since 1928, yet Syria later developed and now has deployed chemical weapons. After Iraq killed more than 3,000 Kurds around the town of Halabja and injured thousands more, mostly civilians, in 1988, the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 was adopted. In force since 1997, it bans not only the use, but also possession, manufacture and transfer of chemical weapons. Obama notes that nations accounting for 98 percent of the world’s population — 189 states — have signed it.
Now Syria, apparently, is ready to sign and relinquish its weaponry.
Today, in Geneva, Kerry and Lavrov announced that they have the “framework” of a deal envisioning the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014, Bloomberg Washington’s David Lerman reports from Geneva with James Hertling and other European colleagues there: “The agreement calls for initial inspections in Syria, which is engulfed in a civil war, by November and gives Assad a week to provide an inventory of the weapons he didn’t acknowledge having until this week. United Nations approval would also be needed to impose sanctions.”
“There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” Kerry told reporters today in Geneva at a joint briefing with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, after three days of negotiations in the city. Obama, who twice delayed possible U.S. military intervention, “always retains the right” to use force, Kerry said.
See the outlines of the accord here @StateDept:
— Department of State (@StateDept) September 14, 2013
“The diplomats said they hoped to use the deal to revive a stalled peace process to end fighting that has killed more than 100,000 people in the past 2 1/2 years,” the Bloomberg team reports. “Kerry and Lavrov will meet this month with the UN’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, during the UN General Assembly to set a date for a conference. While Assad has agreed to take part, the Syrian opposition has insisted he step down as a condition for negotiations.”
It was the threat of military action, the Obama administration maintains, that forced Syria’s hand. It was a certain American “exceptionalism” that made the rejection of chemical weapons an imperative, Obama told the nation. Before an agreement was reached, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin would lecture the American public about the “dangerous” concept of American exceptionalism that Obama articulated. The White House took exception to the Russian’s remarks.
Today, without any Rose Garden trappings or any nationally televised address, Obama issued a statement from the White House.
“This framework provides the opportunity for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner, which could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the region and the world. The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments,” the president said. “While we have made important progress, much more work remains to be done. The United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
“The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere,” Obama said. “We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children. Today marks an important step towards achieving this goal.”
In the end, should this once implausible international hand-shake hold, a potential military action prompted by an ad hoc remark Obama made last year warning that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would represent a “red line” that cannot be crossed will have been averted by another ad hoc remark Kerry made about the way out of this confrontation. At the same time, should this agreement hold, the ultimate goal of averting another chemical attack against Syrians may also be achieved.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look away,” Obama said in his nationally televised address from the White House on Sept. 10 largely devoted to making the case for American military action in Syria while delaying his request for congressional support as negotiations got underway. “The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it.”
The U.S., Obama said then, “is not the world’s policeman.”
Serving as one of the world’s mediators, though, is not a bad role.
— Department of State (@StateDept) September 14, 2013