Russian Proposal May Prove Gift to Obama

PHOTO: Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama arrive for G-20PlayAlexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo
WATCH The Accidental Diplomat: John Kerry's Decent Proposal

President Obama may finally have found the diplomatic solution to Syria's use of chemical weapons that allows him to avoid an embarrassing, and perhaps crippling, defeat in Congress.

It's a surprise assist from an even more surprising source, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president with whom President Obama has had a sometimes prickly and more recently even confrontational relationship.

"This has really been a remarkable turn of events," said Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Putin knew Obama needed an out, and Obama may have accidently gotten one."

But as White House speechwriters furiously redraft the speech the president will make tonight and as U.S. diplomats at the U.N. "explore seriously the viability" of the Russian proposal, there remains a question about who came up with the idea to allow the Syrians to handover their chemical weapons in the first place.

On the face of it, the Russian plan seems to have been born out of a seeming slip of the tongue by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Speaking Monday in London, Kerry said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a U.S. airstrike if he were to turn over every bit of his chemical weapons to the "international community in the next week… and allow a full and total accounting."

A spokeswoman for the State Department later qualified Kerry's comments, calling them a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."

Within moments his comments, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, seemingly took him up on the idea. Despite Kerry calling Lavrov to let him know his proposal was simply "rhetorical," the Russians continued to move forward with a plan to get Syria to turn over their weapons.

Amazingly, the Syrians rapidly agreed.

Speaking to reporters today Lavrov again credited Kerry, saying "The proposal for establishing international control over Syria's chemical weapons is not quite Russian. It derives from exchanges we had with American colleagues and from yesterday's statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that a strike could be avoided if this problem is solved."

But sources, in both the White House and the Kremlin, have leaked that the origins of the proposal might have been less than accidental and preceded Kerry's remarks.

Presidents Obama and Putin met briefly on the sidelines of last week's G20 conference, in which sources say they discussed a plan to encourage Assad to give up his weapons program.

That story, that Obama, chief architect and proponent of a U.S. strike, may have actually come up with the diplomatic solution he now might be forced to take strikes some as a bit fishy.

"It's impossible to know if they really discussed it then," said Kuchins. "They only met on the sidelines for 20 minutes and with translators, so it couldn't have been that serious a discussion. Kerry's comments looked off the cuff and rhetorical. They were even described that way."

Obama is on Capitol Hill today to meet with members of Congress. It remains unclear if he is there to encourage them to vote for a military strike or to relay plans for a diplomatic solution.

At the heart of Obama's decision is a calculus about who is a better partner, the Russians, who support the Syrian regime and recently gave asylum to accused American secret leaker Edward Snowden, or Congress.

"Ultimately, [Obama] might have to take the Russian route," said Kuchins. "Public opinion is turning against the strike and he might be in more trouble if he avoids what is being given to him."