Putin and Kerry give Obama an out on Syria strike

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House officials are considering a Russian offer to corral Syrian chemical weapons in exchange for canceling planned U.S. airstrikes.

The deal could avoid an U.S. airstrike and hand President Barack Obama an apparent diplomatic success, amid polls that show rising U.S. opposition to any airstrikes.

But it also would likely shield Syria’s dictatorial regime from immediate U.S. airstrikes, and allow it to continue fighting the rebels forces that are backed by Turkey and the United States, along with Saudi Arabia and other Islamic autocracies. Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, are Syria’s strongest allies.

The rebel groups and their political allies, such as the D.C.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, have backed U.S. airstrikes against Syria’s military.

The possibility of a deal emerged quickly today after Secretary of State John Kerry off-handedly suggested Syria could give up its weapons during a early-morning speech in London.

Assad could avoid a U.S. aircraft by turning “over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week… and allow a full and total accounting for that,” Kerry said.

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done,” he added.

Kerry’s statement was intended to win European support for airstrikes, following the Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons by the government against rebel-held areas in Damascus.

Russian diplomats jumped on Kerry’s statement, and quickly proposed a deal that would sequester Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons.

White House officials downplayed the possible deal, but didn’t reject it.

They also used the possibility of a deal to pressure skeptical U.S. legislators to back President Barack Obama’s threat of an airstrike.

“The only reason we’re seeing this proposal is because of the threat of U.S. military action,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during the midday press conference. “We will make the case to lawmakers that we need to keep the pressure up” by approving an airstrike prior to a possible deal, he said.

“The authorization would continue to put pressure on {Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad…. [and is] the only chance of making a proposition like this bear fruit,” he said

Without a threat of force, “it is hard to imagine he will suddenly give [his chemical weapons] up,” he said.

The prospect of a diplomatic deal may help progressive Democratic legislators vote to authorize airstrikes. The Senate votes on Wednesday, while the House is expected to vote on the issue next week.

Obama is slated to give a speech to the nation Tuesday night to win support for the airstrike.

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