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Does Putin’s Help Come With A Price?

The offer by Russian President Putin to broker a deal that would have Syria turn over its chemical weapons stockpile to the United Nations has given President Obama hope of extricating himself from a mess he himself created.

President Obama’s declaration of an American “red line” regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons and his incongruous decision to seek congressional approval for a military strike against the Syrians – something that now seems beyond reach in light of overwhelming popular opposition – triggered a dynamic that will probably undermine American foreign policy and hobble Mr. Obama in the final years of his second term.

On the international stage, it’s difficult to imagine anyone (think the mullahs in Iran) taking U.S. commitments or military threats seriously in the wake of the president’s bumbling performance these past couple of weeks.

Domestically, a congressional defeat of this magnitude would doubtless cause the president to be cast as the lamest kind of lame duck. That it would embolden his Republican critics in Congress is a foregone conclusion.

Plainly, the very viability of the Obama presidency has been placed at risk thanks to Mr. Obama’s inability to speak for the country on such a pivotal issue.

At this point, the White House would welcome anything that might obviate the need for U.S. military action against Syria. So while the threat of military action against Syria had always been premised on punishing President Assad for the actual use of chemical weapons, Mr. Kerry is now suggesting that Syria could avoid a military confrontation with the U.S. if it gave up its chemical weapons:

[Mr. Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.

Within hours of Mr. Kerry’s statement, Anthony J. Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, reiterated that “We would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons.”

As if on cue, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chimed in: “If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus. And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

In quick succession, Syria’s foreign minister said Syria would accept the proposal and both the UN secretary general and the British prime minister endorsed the idea. Of course, this plan would serve as an insurance policy of sorts for President Assad and militate against foreign support for the rebels challenging his regime. If he were to be the key player in a broad deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, he could hardly be deemed expendable.

Russia, Mr. Assad’s ally and major arms supplier, probably can’t believe its good fortune.

One of the questions that immediately arises is what, if anything, Mr. Obama will have to do by way of reciprocation should a deal be struck. A possible answer may lie in news reports this week that Palestinian negotiators have taken to claiming that Secretary of State John Kerry “guaranteed us in writing” that peace talks would proceed on the basis of the presumptive legitimacy of the pre-June 1967 lines. While the U.S. believes the 1967 lines with “land swaps” should be the framework for negotiations, the administration has studiously maintained the public stance that there should be no preconditions to the resumption of talks. Indeed, State Department officials immediately denied the existence of the written guarantee claimed by the Palestinians.

Quid pro quo in the offing? Maybe not exactly. A new spirit of cooperation? Probably. In any case, we should be sensitive to any movement, however slight, on the part of the U.S. And, to borrow the post-9/11 public service motto, if we see something, we should say something.

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