On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined repeatedly set a deadline for completing for a deal with Russia to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons.
“I’m not going to place a date on it or a timeline on it,” Carney said.
“The timeline for this, appropriately, will be worked out at the U.N. Security Council … other aspects, the technical and implementation aspects, will be discussed in Geneva,” when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Russian counterpart on Thursday, Carney added.
But without any deadline, Russia and Syria can try to drag out negotiations, making any U.S. strike less likely.
The delay also helps the Syrian government continue its battle against the various Syrian rebel groups, who are already complaining about Obama’s failure to attack the Syrian government.
But the White House can use closed-door negotiations to keep the issue out of U.S. headlines, freeing the president to focus on his ambitious domestic priorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, can keep the issue in the media spotlight by raising his demands. For example, he has already demanded that Obama promise not to launch an airstrike, and he may choose to demand that Obama stop military aid to the Islamist rebels.
That demand may be rejected by Obama.
“We provide support to the military opposition… and we will continue to do that moving forward,” Carney said today.
In any talks, Obama’s short-term negotiating position is weak, partly because he can’t realistically threaten Syria if Russia and Syria decline to close down the Syria’s chemical weapons force.
U.S. public support for an aerial strike into Syria has dropped in the last week, even as Obama and his aides launched a huge effort to swing public opinion and congressional votes in their favor.
But because the public does not want to get involved in the Syrian civil war, the public is not likely to care if the proposed chemical-weapons deal collapses after several weeks of closed-door talks.
Obama seized on the Russia disarmament proposal on Monday, and on Tuesday asked Congress to delay a vote on his request for authorization to strike Syria.
Obama was expected to lose that vote, greatly weakening his political clout in D.C.
Syrian rebels are complaining about Obama’s retreat from his plans to punish Syria’s government for its Aug. 21 nerve-gas attacks on rebel-held neighborhoods.
“Bashar Assad won this battle” one rebel told NBC.
“There is anger and disappointment on the streets now,” said an opposition activist in Damascus — Syria’s capital city. “We have been facing death and under fire for the last two and a half years while the world has been silent… Even after the use of chemical weapons, no one acted,” he said.
“We only have Allah to help us,” he added.
The rebels consist of local rebels who are aligned with the radical Muslim Brotherhood political movement, plus jihadis from multiple countries who are aligned with al-Qaida. Both groups are Islamists, and favor the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in which Christians and women would face apartheid-like legal subordination.
But the White House is turning its focus away from Syria negotiations, and back to the its domestic agenda. “I can’t give a timeline… except that we’re not interested in delay or avoidance,” Carney said.