Syria deal provides respite for Obama but leaves questions on using force

The United States and Russia have agreed on a proposal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, Kerry said on Saturday after nearly three days of talks with Lavrov. Nour Fourat / Reuters

The Syria accord announced Saturday gives President Barack Obama at least a temporary way out of a foreign policy mess that has dragged on for weeks.

For Obama's domestic agenda, the deal can be seen as a tactical victory because it provides a breather from a frustrating few weeks for the president and allows Obama and Congress to revert to trying to resolve their standoff over federal spending and raising the government's borrowing limit.

Whether his handling of the Syria crisis has made him stronger or weaker as he resumes bargaining with Republican leaders will be seen over the next two weeks.

But troubling questions remain about whether the framework accord announced by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Saturday in Geneva will really remove Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons arsenal.

The text of the accord itself emphasizes that its goals for the removal and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons are "ambitious."

It gives the Assad regime just a week to provide a list of its chemical weapons and where they're stored and produced.

If the regime doesn't comply, then the agreement says "the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter" which allows economic sanctions, blockade, and use of military force. But the accord doesn't say whether the Security Council will in fact impose such measures if Assad reneges or drags his feet.

Obama said in a statement after the accord was announced that “there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply.”

Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons in the suburb of Raqqa, eastern Syria, on Friday. Nour Fourat / Reuters

"Absent the threat of force, it's unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who'd voted ten days ago for a committee resolution authorizing Obama to attack Syria.

Corker said, "Syria's willingness to follow through is very much an open question, but I remain supportive of a strong diplomatic solution to Syria's use of chemical weapons."

Like his GOP allies Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Corker has for months urged Obama to send more weapons to the rebel armies fighting to overthrow Assad. Obama had said in August of 2011 that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside," but Corker and others want him to do more to topple the Syrian dictator.

In a joint statement Saturday, McCain and Graham were harsher than Corker in their reaction to the Kerry-Lavrov deal, arguing that both U.S. allies and adversaries would see the accord "as an act of provocative weakness on America's part. We cannot imagine a worse signal to send to Iran as it continues its push for a nuclear weapon.”

They said the agreement is “meaningless” without the Security Council passing a resolution which would threaten military force. “Assad will use the months and months afforded to him to delay and deceive the world using every trick in Saddam Hussein's playbook,” they said.

But in calling on Obama to keep alive the threat of a U.S. attack, Corker, McCain and Graham may be in the minority in Congress. Both Obama and a majority in Congress seemed eager to find a way to avert military action, even as Obama repeatedly said he was willing to order an attack on Assad's regime in order to deter him from using chemical weapons.

The messages were mixed and somewhat muddled: the president emphasized how war-weary both he and the American people were. At first he seemed intent on an attack – or at least, as he said, "a shot across the bow" of Assad's regime -- but then suddenly two weeks ago he announced he wanted Congress to vote to authorize an attack.

It quickly became clear he'd lose that vote, with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans urging him to not launch cruise missiles at Assad. The Syria episode wasn't a show of strength by the president, but Saturday's accord allows Obama to put the mess behind him, at least for the time being.