While the pundits ruminated and those who wanted regime change in Syria mourned a missed opportunity, Obama had another card to play. Behind the scenes, a long-tended diplomatic seed was about to bear fruit. On September 5th, Obama traveled to St. Petersburg for the G-20 Summit to marshal support for action in Syria and to sit down with Putin. Most of the mainstream media portrayed the meeting as a "showdown" between Obama and Putin, one that Obama lost. But White House staff say that when the two leaders huddled for half an hour in a much-watched tête-à-tête in a corner of the meeting room, they agreed in principle to start relieving Assad of his chemical weapons, peacefully.
That discussion did not come out of nowhere. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Obama officials had been "in deep engagement" with the Russians about them "playing a greater role" in ending the conflict in Syria, according to White House sources. The Russians make no secret of having armed Assad with conventional weapons. They are less open about the fact that they supplied Syria with the means to make chemical weapons in the 1980s.
On September 9th, Kerry stunned reporters in London when he appeared to accidentally give Assad a way out. "Sure, he 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 the full and total accounting," Kerry said, adding, "but it can't be done." The media seized on the comment as an off-message ad-lib. But behind-the-scenes discussions had been taking place for some time. What had changed was that the Russians were taking it seriously with the U.S. now on the brink of bombing Syria.
That afternoon, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussed the idea further by phone, as Kerry was on a plane back to Washington. "There was more openness than we had expected," says a senior administration official, and by the time Kerry landed, consideration of the option had advanced to a more serious stage.
Days later, the U.S. team was headed to Geneva, with a plan that American experts had worked on feverishly for a few days. "We got there and the Russians were pretty much unprepared," the official recalls. "We took out the plan and went off that, and there was agreement."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasizes that the episode crystallized the administration's preference that diplomacy always be the first option. "Our view is that the Russians weren't trying to do us a favor by working with us on the chemical weapons," she says. "They have an interest in preventing chemical weapons in the region. They have an interest in Iran not developing nuclear weapons. It's not a favor to us." Psaki says that despite upheaval in Crimea, the U.S. and Russia will continue to work together on those broad shared interests in Syria.
By the end of September, the U.N. adopted an international chemical-weapons-disposal agreement, ending the need for a military strike or congressional authorization for one. In the end, Putin got the credit, but different actors, including the U.S. and the EU, had proposed some version of the same idea for a while, says Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's like the baby that has one mother and many claim paternity," she says. "Putin got to the paternity claim first, but lots of people had been putting that idea through channels."
Kerry dismisses any criticism that the administration has been soft in its handling of Assad or Putin. "People are entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts, and the bottom line is pretty simple," Kerry tells Rolling Stone. "We made it crystal clear Assad was going to be held accountable for using chemical weapons. Because President Obama threatened force, diplomacy had a chance to work, and we worked it. And what no one with any grasp of the facts can deny is that a diplomatic agreement to get those weapons out of Syria is the only way to guarantee those weapons can't be used again. So make no mistake, diplomacy backed by a threat of force is achieving something the use of force by definition couldn't do. Military strikes couldn't get the weapons out of Syria, period. Effective diplomacy is doing that today, and we need continued diplomacy to finish the job."
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