Does a US strike on Syria have a 'sell by' date?

US officials want a quick signal from the Russians that Syria is really willing to give up its chemical weapons. But there's a chance everyone's just kicking the can down the road.

Larry Downing/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) talks with the UN Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (2nd l.) in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday. Secretary Kerry flew into Geneva on Thursday to hear Russia's plans to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and avert US-led military strikes.

Now that President Obama has put the threat of military strikes in Syria on hold, in favor of diplomacy, a logical next question centers on time.

That is, how much time is the Obama administration willing to give the Russian-led effort to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons before the US starts rattling the sabers again?

Mr. Obama didn’t mention a timeline or benchmarks for diplomatic success in his speech Tuesday. The next day, White House spokesman Jay Carney also kept it vague when asked over and over about a timeline.

“I expect that this will take some time,” Mr. Carney said of the Russian initiative, later acknowledging that he was stating the obvious. “But we also are not interested in delaying tactics. And we believe it's very important to hold [Syrian President Bashar] Assad accountable."

The Obama administration says, with near-certitude, that it was the Assad regime that used chemical weapons Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 people outside Damascus, including some 400 children. Obama sought congressional authorization to launch limited airstrikes on key Syrian military positions, but the Senate has shelved its original resolution (though work is now under way on a revised version).  

Syria says it welcomes the disarmament proposal by its ally Russia. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Russian counterpart in Geneva to discuss the logistics of placing Syria’s large chemical arsenal under international control and ultimately destroying it.

But plenty of foreign affairs analysts are skeptical that President Assad will ever fully give up his chemical arsenal, for both political and logistical reasons – particularly amid a civil war. Secretary Kerry himself dismissed the notion of quick progress toward Syrian chemical disarmament, when he originally floated the idea Monday in an off-hand way.

In global political terms, Syria and Russia are hardly friends of the United States, and while they have helped Obama domestically by giving him a reason to back off a congressional vote he was likely to lose, aiding the US president is not their primary goal.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a leading proponent of airstrikes on Syria, says Russia and Syria are stalling for time.

"I'm worried that we have a game of rope-a-dope for a while, and the slaughter goes on," Senator McCain told reporters Wednesday at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.

McCain added that Russia should be given a very short deadline, say, 48 to 72 hours, to put a deal in place.

In Geneva Thursday, US officials said their first goal with the Russians was to get Syria to show quickly that it’s serious about giving up its chemical weapons. Among the first steps would be for Assad to “make a complete, public declaration” of his stockpiles, Reuters reports.

The US wants to see “if there’s reality here or not” in the Russian proposal, a US official said.

In Washington, attention is already turning back to pressing domestic matters, including the debt ceiling, government funding, and the launch of a key element of Obamacare on Oct. 1. 

But Obama’s political bind over Syria hasn’t gone away, it’s just on hold – perhaps indefinitely. Short of a dramatic development, such as a Syrian attack on an American asset or on Israel, analysts have a hard time seeing a game change in Congress or with US public opinion, which is firmly opposed to even limited US military action in Syria. 

“I would expect this to drag on for a while, because Obama at this point has an interest in making it go away,” says Christopher Gelpi, chair of peace studies and conflict resolution at Ohio State University in Columbus. “And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Assad certainly have an interest in kicking the can down the road. [House Speaker John] Boehner wants it to go away. So it’s hard to see how anyone pushes hard for force.”

Still, during this pause for diplomacy, it will be difficult for Obama to maintain a credible threat of military action against Syria – a threat the US insists is needed to keep everyone at the table. 

“I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” the president said Tuesday night.

Obama didn’t mention going back to Congress, if diplomacy fails, and asking again for authorization to strike at Syria. He has always asserted that as commander in chief he has the authority to order military strikes on his own. But after the Aug. 21 chemical attack, he believed it was right, “in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security,” to seek Congress’s permission, he said Tuesday.

Perhaps Obama is gambling that the Russians and Syrians see the phrase “direct or imminent threat to [US] security” – a way for Obama to get around congressional authorization – and still feel the threat of a US military strike.   

In an op-ed in The New York Times posted online Wednesday night, President Putin signaled that he does still see a US threat against Syria.

“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism,” Putin warned. 

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