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Did U.S.-Russia Deal Save Obama From Defeat On Syria?



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. This weekend, as we've been reporting, the U.S. and Russia have brokered a sweeping agreement that calls for the destruction and removal of all chemical weapons in Syria. It imposes quick deadlines, calling for inspectors to be in the country by November, and declaring that Syria completely rid itself of chemical weapons within a year. Yesterday, the Pentagon released a statement saying the threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress and that the American military posture has not changed. It's a point President Obama has reiterated, that force is still on the table.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk us through all this.

Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: So, there are all kinds of questions floating about at this point. One of the big ones is how long do you think President Obama gives this diplomatic process to play out?

LIASSON: That's a good question, and he hasn't said yet. They've got, the Syrians, have until next week to produce an inventory, as you said. That's one benchmark. Then in November they have to let inspectors in and destroy their chemical weapons equipment. That's another benchmark. But then there are many months till mid-2014, when the weapons will be presumably destroyed.

So they've got a long time. The U.S. has a long time to decide whether Syria will actually carry out the agreement that in essence Russia made for them. So we don't know yet.

MARTIN: Is a military strike by the U.S. still a realistic option?

LIASSON: Well, as you said, the president and the Pentagon says a military strike is still an option. They say the pressure of a military strike is the only thing that brought Russia and Syria to the table. But effectively, it is off the table. If Syria cheats, would Congress be all of a sudden willing to give the president the authority they weren't going to give him before this deal? Or would he be more willing to go make a strike on his own?

There are senators who are drafting a new resolution that would authorize force in the event the diplomatic process breaks down, but there are no plans to bring that to the floor any time soon. Congress doesn't want to take this vote. The president doesn't want to strike Syria without congressional approval. And the rebels have decided the U.S. has given up on a military strike. The question is does the Syrian government and Russia think that also?

MARTIN: So, as all this diplomatic back-and-forth continues, there's still a war going on in Syria. Reports of new brutality by the regime have come out waged by conventional weapons, not chemical weapons. If this agreement, even if it works, I mean this doesn't stop the war in Syria...

LIASSON: Not at all.

MARTIN: ...which is the issue the president has been so concerned about.

LIASSON: Not at all, Assad has already killed many tens of thousands with conventional weapons. There are new U.N. reports that the Syrian regime has been systematically attacking hospitals. It's possible that Russia and Syria have concluded that Assad can continue to win the civil war without using chemical weapons, and that does raise a lot of other questions.

The president says he's separating these two issues; getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons, which he thinks he now has a chance to do, and tilting the balance on the battlefield to help the rebels. He said today on ABC, that he wasn't going to use military intervention to either oust Assad or stop the civil war.

Now a military strike might've helped tilt the battlefield, but now all the rebels have is a new commitment from the U.S. - made after demands from Senate hawks, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain - in exchange for their support of a military strike to arm and train the moderate, pro-Western rebels more vigorously than the U.S. had been doing. The question is will that make a difference?

MARTIN: Briefly, Mara, how does President Obama fare politically throughout all this? Has this diplomatic plan saved him in some way?

LIASSON: Well, for the moment, he's out of the box he put himself in. Assuming it works, which is a big if, it is better than a humiliating rejection from Congress, or a military strike in defiance of a rejection of Congress, so he might have dodged a bullet or an airstrike, as the case may be.

But he's undermined his own credibility in the process. Both friends and opponents on Capitol Hill say that this hasn't been a strong display of presidential leadership. And it's true, bumbling to peace is better than rushing to war. But I think he emerges overall weaker from this.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.