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How the Syria plan broke through, just in time

Thursday - 9/12/2013, 6:54am  ET

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2013 file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry listens on Capitol Hill in Washington while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the proposed authorization to use military force in Syria. “We’ve kind of hit a wall,” President Barack Obama said on his way to Russia last week. He meant his relationship with Moscow, but the remark came to apply, too, to other leaders abroad, lawmakers at home and even Americans at large, all standing in the way of his plans to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. Just days later, military action is on hold, diplomacy has some steam and Obama no longer looks so alone. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- "We've kind of hit a wall," President Barack Obama commented last week on his way to Russia. He meant his relationship with Moscow, but the remark came to apply as well to other leaders abroad, lawmakers at home and Americans at large, all standing in the way of what he wanted to do about Syria, which was to attack it.

Just days later, military action is on hold, a diplomatic effort to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons has some steam and Obama no longer looks so terribly alone. The potential way out took shape with an episode akin to palace intrigue: Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin pulling up chairs in a corner of a stately room at the summer home of Peter the Great, after a very late night of fireworks and lasers etching the St. Petersburg sky. And it grew from there.

It's all been enough to stir some gushing admiration in the halls of Congress for a clever president who knows how to conduct statesmanship when the pressure's really on. The president of Russia, that is.

"Those people who have been demonizing Putin and pushing him away have been doing a great disservice to our country and to the cause of peace," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

That sentiment is far from unanimous in Congress. But the sense of relief that has washed over lawmakers is palpable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been pushing Obama's case for military strikes, commented that, really, "I'm not a blood and thunder guy. I'm not for shock and awe."

Instead, almost everyone seems up for dither and defer at the moment.

A look at how the past days' parallel tracks -- pushing for approval of a military attack while pausing to give diplomacy a chance -- unfolded:

SUMMIT STIRRINGS

Obama pressed his case with world leaders at the Group of 20 summit, which included an opulent dinner last Thursday night with ballet dancers and fire jugglers. His pitch slipped past midnight on a night capped by St. Petersburg fireworks at 2 a.m. After Friday's round of meetings, the burden of a looming military strike in retaliation for Syrian chemical weapons use and the lack of explicit support from summit partners weighed visibly on the president when he addressed the traveling press corps. It's conceivable that "I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," he said. "And then each member of Congress is going to have to decide."

And then he would have to decide whether to attack Syria, even absent congressional support.

With plenty of U.S.-Russian tensions simmering -- over Syria, Moscow's sheltering of former NSA leaker Edward Snowden and more -- Obama decided there would be no formal one-on-one with Putin. But the Russian leader, the Syrian government's leading patron on the world stage, approached him Friday and they pulled chairs together off to the side.

Flanked only by interpreters, with other leaders looking on, they launched into a 20-minute discussion about Syria. There was no breakthrough on one vexing aspect of their disagreement -- the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, Putin broached an idea that the two leaders had first discussed a year ago at the G-20 summit in Mexico -- an international agreement to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

Obama agreed that could be an area for cooperation and suggested Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov follow up. You wouldn't know it from Obama's public mood that day, but seeds had been planted.

___

THE ARM-TWISTING

Since Aug. 23, administration officials have had discussions about Syria with more than 370 House members and nearly all senators, according to the White House count. The pace picked up on the weekend and into Monday, as members of Congress returned from a summer break that had kept many of them engaged on Syria only from afar. They'd already, though, gotten an earful from constituents against military action.

Back in Washington lawmakers were shown a collection of videos, also released publicly, showing victims of the Aug. 21 chemical attacks that the U.S. blames on Assad's forces. There were repeated presentations of those videos, to bring home the brutality of gassing, although they did not prove who was responsible.

"I cannot look at those pictures -- those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching -- and not think of my own two kids," said Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, as part of the lobbying offensive.

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