Does Russia's chemical weapons plan give Obama a way out?
John Kerry's 'tactical error' may help his president avoid humiliating Congress defeat
PRESIDENT Obama has said he will put plans for a military strike on Syria on hold if the Assad regime places its chemical weapons under international control.
Obama said he was "sceptical" the Syrian government would follow through on the idea put forward by Russia yesterday. But if Syria does accede - and it is likely to because it is essentially a Russian client state - what then?
Opinion is divided. The Times believes yesterday was a dark day for the US Secretary of State John Kerry, who made a "strategic error" by giving Assad a way to stave off a US strike. Asked in London yesterday what action Assad could take to prevent a military intervention Kerry said he could "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons in the next week".
Kerry believed it was a rhetorical answer, quickly adding: "But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
He was wrong, it seems. Russia seized on the idea and "within hours" had offered to organise the international control of the weapons.
The Times sees Russia's proposal as a masterstroke. "Moscow had found a way of delaying the US attack, strengthening its position in the Middle East and splitting European public opinion," the paper says.
For Kerry and the Obama administration, it is a "humiliating" outcome, the paper says. America's threat of a strike sooner rather than later may now give way to months of paralysis as "legions" of chemical weapons inspectors spread across Syria, "taking samples, analysing them, compiling inventories and a control mechanism".
"Moscow has hijacked this serious issue to prolong the dictatorship of its one remaining Middle Eastern ally, and Mr Kerry, visibly tired from a summer of intensive diplomacy, has let it do so," the paper concludes.
But not everyone thinks Kerry and Obama have had their noses bloodied by Moscow.
The Guardian says Russia's proposal opens up "the first real chance of a political settlement to the crisis since hundreds of civilians died in an attack on a Damascus suburb last month".
Obama himself described Russia's offer as a "possible breakthrough" and a "potentially positive development" and there are reasons to believe he is sincere. Faced with the prospect of losing a Congress vote over his plans to attack Syria - and weighed down by public opinion that has shown little enthusiasm for a strike - Kerry's so-called "stumble" may have given the embattled US president "a way out from what has become an increasingly intractable problem".
"Intentional or not, Kerry's comments opened up a chance to defuse the crisis at a moment when Obama was already struggling to persuade Congress of the need for US intervention," the paper says.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Foster sees the plan to place Assad's chemical weapons under international control as a way to "unpick the diplomatic deadlock". He says Obama's willingness to "play along" reflects the "fundamental weakness" of the US president's domestic position.
There are plenty of holes in the plan proposed by Russia, writes Foster. For a start, Assad is unlikely to give up weapons which are his "main insurance policy" against Israel's nuclear arms. To complicate matters further, the regime has never officially acknowledged that it possesses chemical weapons.
"However, such is the desire for breathing space on all sides that this scarcely-credible proposal has been welcomed by Mr Obama as a potentially serious breakthrough," writes Foster. ·