09/10/2013 01:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

Syria Attack: What's Really Going On Behind The Public Debate

WASHINGTON -- In Middle Eastern bazaars, it’s easy to get lost, haggling is the order of the day, and things are never quite what they seem. In other words, they’re a lot like America’s ever-evolving policy on Syria.

In the hours leading up to President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation and the world, the congressional resolution he has been seeking -- to strike Syria’s military infrastructure with missiles as punishment and deterrence -- has been saved from almost certain oblivion by developments overseas. Saved, that is, for the time being and with more conditions attached. Events are racing so fast that the president’s speech will be rewritten and tweaked until literally just before he speaks Tuesday night from the Oval Office.

But nothing is as it appears on the surface. Motives are mixed, movements hidden. Here, based on background interviews with administration and congressional insiders and Washington-based diplomats, is a look at what is going on behind the scenes:

Kerry's "Gaffe": Secretary of State John Kerry has been ridiculed in some quarters for having “accidentally” raised the idea that is now central to the deal being worked on -- if not yet fully worked out -- to turn Syria’s chemical weapons over to Russia for safekeeping and prompt destruction under U.N. supervision.

In fact, the idea had been discussed on and off for weeks in a “very tight circle,” one administration official said -- a circle that included Kerry, the president, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. It surfaced in public in the Israeli press over the weekend, and Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had talked about it well before that.

And Obama said in interviews Monday night that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the idea at the G-20 last week. “This wasn’t an accident,” said one top White House official.

Russia's Goal: Administration officials and foreign policy experts in the U.S. say that, however much Russia wants to be seen as supporting its longtime Syrian ally, Putin shares a genuine interest in removing chemical weapon stockpiles from that country, lest they somehow fall into the hands of Islamist Chechen rebels.

“The Russians lie and can’t be trusted, but in this case they may have a reason to be responsible,” said a top official at one Middle East embassy.

Still, if the Russians really mean it, they will have to accept some version of a binding timetable for Syrian compliance -- something the country's diplomats initially declined to do.

What Obama Wants: Everyone condemns the use of chemical weapons, but neither the president nor Congress wants to be stuck with the blame should the U.S. get involved in “another war” in the Middle East. Rather than go it alone based on his authority as commander-in-chief, Obama asked Congress to approve military action -- and to share the blame if anything went wrong.

Now, as he pursues the new U.N.-based proposal, the president may have found a way to spread the responsibility even further -- not just to Republicans and Democrats in Congress but to the international community -- while still ultimately enhancing his authority to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad if he has to.

With the latest approach, congressional Republicans, divided between John McCain-style hawks and Rand Paul-style libertarian isolationists, may also have fewer excuses to hang back.

Israel's Caution: Conventional wisdom is that Israel and its supporters, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are eager to see a military air strike against Assad. According to congressional and diplomatic sources, the truth is more complex. Although the Israelis have long been concerned about Assad’s chemical weapons, they are cautious about the wisdom and efficacy of U.S. missile strikes and would just as soon find another route.

While AIPAC was lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the original (amended) Senate resolution, their effort was a muted one. "Believe me, I have been around here when AIPAC was really putting the pressure on and this isn’t one of those times," said a top aide to one high-ranking Democratic senator.

One source close to the Israeli embassy said that if a tight and strict U.N. resolution could be drafted, "it would be a very good development from Israel’s point of view." The Israelis have no trust in either the Russians or the Syrians, but if the timetables in the resolution were firm enough, the "world would quickly know if the Russians and the Syrians were serious," the source said. Israel is deeply skeptical of the U.N. as well, but "they think that the U.N. does know what it is doing when it comes to chemical weapons."



Here's What Politicians Have Said About Syria

09/11/2013 6:02 PM EDT

U.S. Struggling To Destroy Its Own Chemical Weapons Stockpile

The Guardian reports that despite promising to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons by 2012, the United States still has thousands of tons of lethal gas stored in facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.

According to reporter Paul Lewis, the most recent projections indicate that the weapons dump will not be complete until 2023 -- eight years after Russia said it will be fully rid of nerve agents.

"By missing its deadlines, the U.S. and other countries have arguably breached a founding principle of the same treaty cited as a reason to justify an attack on Syria," Lewis wrote.

Though Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is expected to be much smaller than those of Russia and the U.S., Lewis points out, the delays many countries have experienced in destroying their arsenals indicate the technological and political challenges likely in attempting to disarm Damascus.

Read the full story here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 5:24 PM EDT

Chomsky: 'The United States Is A Rogue State'

In an interview with Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky takes issue with Obama's characterization of the United States as "the anchor of global security" in Tuesday night's address.

Pointing to America's use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, as well as its role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders while ushering in dictatorships across Latin America, Chomsky fervently rejects the president's entire premise for taking military action in Syria.

"The United States is a rogue state," Chomsky said. "It doesn’t pay any attention to international law."

He notes the seeming hypocrisy in calling for Syria to adhere to internationally established norms against the possession of chemical weapons without demanding the same from other countries -- namely, Israel. (As Chomsky points out, the U.S. under Ronald Reagan vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have required all nations to observe international law.)

Chomsky sums up Obama's address thusly:

So what he said is, 'I’m going to lie like a trooper about history; I’m going to suppress the U.S. role, the actual U.S. role, for the last seven decades; I’m going to maintain the threat of force, which is, of course, illegal; and I’m going to ensure that the chemical weapons convention is not imposed on the region, because our ally, Israel, would be subjected to it.' And I think those are some of the main points of his address.

Watch the entire interview in the video below, and read the full transcript of the segment here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 5:10 PM EDT

Biden Holds Two Classified Briefings On Syria For House Republicans, Source Says

Vice President Joe Biden hosted two classified briefings in the White House Situation Room Wednesday for groups of House Republicans, an administration official confirmed to HuffPost. The meetings were not on Biden's public schedule, and according to an attendee, Syria topped the agenda.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) said in a tweet this afternoon that his meeting with Biden lasted two hours, and Schock appreciated Biden's "frank discussion and personal outreach."

Just a day earlier, Schock expressed frustration with the Obama administration's shifting position on Syrian chemical weapons negotiations.

“There are so many moving parts,” Schock told Time. “The Administration’s statements continue to change over a 24-hour period. We’re going to strike, we’d like Congress’s approval, we don’t need Congress’s approval—that’s what we heard last week—to now we may not strike if Assad gives up his weapons to Russia.”

-- Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 4:29 PM EDT

Are Americans Too Desensitized To Care About Syria?

David Nakamura posits that one of the toughest challenges Obama faces is getting Americans to care about Syria -- and not simply because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Washington Post writer notes that the images of children writhing on hospital floors in the aftermath of the Aug. 21 chemical attack may not be informative or graphic enough to elicit the emotional response the administration has hoped for during its strike campaign.

Nakamura writes:

Images of dead bodies or men gasping for air and convulsing may produce a horrified reaction, but they do not necessarily explain to a viewer what happened or why, said Scott Sigmund Gartner, a scholar at Penn State University who has studied the affect of war imagery on the public.

"The images that are the most powerful tells [sic] a story that is understandable without captions, without additional explanation," Gartner said. "The images I’ve seen in the media are terrible; they are horrific. But they do not tell a story about the role of chemical weapons -- and it’s unfair to even ask ... that of an image because with chemical weapons, most of the time there’s nothing to see."

Additionally, Nakamura spoke to an expert who acknowledged that while humans are "hard-wired" to fear poisons and gases, the Syria attack videos "lack raw emotional power compared to bloodier photos and videos that the public has seen from other war zones."

Read the full story here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

09/11/2013 3:35 PM EDT

New Details on U.S.-Russia Negotiations In Geneva

More details emerged Wednesday about Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and negotiate a plan to turn over Syria's chemical weapons to international control.

Kerry will depart late Wednesday night accompanied by a team of United States chemical weapons experts, and spend Thursday and Friday in Geneva, according to a State Department spokeswoman. He is scheduled to meet with Lavrov and with United Nations Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. There were no plans Wednesday for Kerry to meet with members of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

The Geneva meetings will give the U.S. an opportunity to evaluate whether the Russian proposal is serious, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. The U.S. scientists also will work with their Russian counterparts to "make this effort logistically and technically possible," Psaki said.

The safety of any weapons inspectors or removal teams while in Syria will certainly be part of the discussion, she said.

Psaki said the negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov are separate from early-stage negotiations on Syria held Wednesday in New York between representatives of the five permanent member nations on the U.N. Security Council. She acknowledged, however, that "all these pieces are linked together."

The U.N. negotiations grew tense Wednesday, when Russia rejected a proposal by France and the U.S. for a binding resolution. The resolution would strip Assad of his chemical weapons and impose "very severe consequences" if he failed to comply.

--Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 2:59 PM EDT

Team Of Chemical Weapons Specialists To Travel With Kerry To Geneva

Secretary of State John Kerry will be accompanied during his two-day trip to Geneva this week by a team of United States chemical weapons experts. The team will help Kerry negotiate the details of a Russian plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons.

A State Department spokeswoman said the names of the experts would be released when the list was finalized, and that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry's counterpart in the negotiations, also will bring a team of scientists and specialists to the meeting.

Despite a bumpy road ahead for any multinational agreements on Syria's chemical weapons, the inclusion of logistics experts and scientists in what was initially called a diplomatic mission underscores how far the U.S. and Russia have come toward an agreement in just 72 hours.

-- Christina Wilkie

09/11/2013 1:50 PM EDT

Report: All Five Permanent Members Of UN Security Council To Meet Today On Syria

09/11/2013 1:45 PM EDT

John Boehner's Syria Stance Not Playing Well Back Home

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared early on his support for President Barack Obama's plan to take military action in Syria. But according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, that position is not playing well in Boehner's Republican district back in Ohio:

One political expert said Boehner’s support might cost him votes next session for Speaker of the House, but he doubts it would oust him from Congress.

Of the 20 people the Enquirer approached about Boehner, some didn’t even know who he was, much less what was his stance on an attack on Syria.

Other opinions ranged from applauding him for at least making a decision to questions about whether he’s still a conservative. One person said he staunchly agrees with what Boehner did and that politics shouldn’t be involved.

Patricia Harmon, 49, of Middletown, suggested Boehner was a turncoat.

“I thought he didn’t like Democrats. Why is he all of a sudden backing the president?” she said.

-- Amanda Terkel

09/11/2013 12:09 PM EDT

Damascus Residents Line Up For Passports

Despite President Obama's call for Congress to delay a vote on a military strike against Syria, dozens of Syrians lined up in Damascus for passports to leave the country. Reuters reports that many residents of the Syrian capital appear wary of current negotiations at the U.N. to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

"We just decided it was time we got passports for the whole family," Raghad, a mother of three in her thirties, told Reuters. Raghad explained that while the family would not need a passport to cross the border into neighboring Lebanon, it would require documents to leave for a third country. "Now with all this news, what if we went to Lebanon and couldn't return? We need passports in case we have no choice but to travel to a third country," Raghad said. "For now, based on the latest news, we're staying until something changes."

Read the full story here.

09/11/2013 11:51 AM EDT

Israel: Syria Must Be Stripped Of Chemical Weapons

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, Reuters reports:

Netanyahu said Syria had carried out a "crime against humanity" by killing innocent civilians with chemical weapons and that Syria's ally Iran, who is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, was watching to see how the world acted.

Read the full story here.