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."

Also on HuffPost:


Loading Slideshow...
  • Susan Rice

    "All of this is horrific. All of us as human beings feel terrible when we see the extraordinary loss of life that [has] occurred in Syria," Rice said. "With chemical weapons, they can kill with indiscriminate abandon. People who are innocent are employed in conflict. It is of a greater magnitude because if terrorists get ahold of those weapons, if other dictators get ahold of those weapons, they can be used on a massive scale."

  • John Boehner

    "We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior."

  • John McCain

    "I am against delaying reaction to what is a massacre of a thousand people," McCain said. "You saw these pictures of these dead children. Come on. This is horrific. We can't stand by and watch this happen."

  • John Kerry

    "This is what Assad did to his own people," Kerry said. If the U.S. allowed "a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad" to get away with gassing his own people, he added, "there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will."

  • Rand Paul

    "I think the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians, and all of a sudden we'll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted," Paul said.

  • Sarah Palin

    "As I said before, if we are dangerously uncertain of the outcome and are led into war by a Commander-in-chief who can’t recognize that this conflict is pitting Islamic extremists against an authoritarian regime with both sides shouting 'Allah Akbar' at each other, then let Allah sort it out," Palin continued.

  • Ted Cruz

    “We should be focused on defending the United States of America. That’s why young men and women sign up to join the military, not to, as you know, serve as Al Qaeda’s air force.”

  • Barack Obama

    "This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. "In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted."

  • Bob Menendez

    "Assad has made a calculation now ... that he can use chemical weapons, or he believes he can use chemical weapons without consequence," Menendez said. "And in doing so there is a global message that in fact other state actors and other non-state actors may believe they can do so as well."

live blog

Oldest Newest

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

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

Share this: tumblr

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

Share this: tumblr

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.

Share this: tumblr

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.

Share this: tumblr

Alexei Pushkov, the head of the lower house of the Russian legislature's foreign affairs committee and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned of consequences if the U.S. strikes Syria.

"This would include the expansion of defensive weapons deliveries to Iran, and discussing the possibility of reviewing our cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan," he said to the lower house, the State Duma, according to Reuters.

Pushkov is known for his hawkish, anti-U.S. views on foreign policy, and he is a member of Putin's party, United Russia. He famously sparked worldwide confusion after tweeting -- and later deleting -- an announcement that Edward Snowden had accepted asylum in Venezuela. He later claimed that he had merely gotten the information from television news.

-- Luke Johnson

Share this: tumblr

A day after U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress to delay a vote on whether or not to strike Syria, Syrian president Bashar Assad marked his 48th birthday.

More than two years into the Syrian conflict, the embattled president has as firm a grip on power as ever.

"He is even more the 'boss' than before, even if he can't act without the support of the military and security apparatus," said Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch diplomat and author of a book on Syria.

Read the full story here.

-- Ryan Craggs

Share this: tumblr

Syria said on Wednesday that its acceptance of a Russian diplomatic plan to give up its chemical weapons arsenal should not be interpreted as a sign on weakness.

The Associated Press reports:

Cabinet minister Ali Haidar said Syria's chemical weapons, which he described as "the nuclear of the poor," was meant to achieve strategic balance against Israel, "an enemy that we've been fighting for more than 60 years."

He said there was now "a new kind of strategic balance" in place, and consequently Syria can afford to relinquish its stockpile as part of an overall plan and "not out of fear of any enemy." He declined to elaborate.

Read the full story here.

Share this: tumblr

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday he would vote against a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria, according to Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes.

In any event, President Barack Obama has asked congressional leaders to delay a vote on the resolution to allow time for a potential diplomatic solution to play out.

-- Luke Johnson

Share this: tumblr

A French official told the Associated Press that negotiations over a United Nations resolution on Syria started on Wednesday.

The negotiations come in the wake of Damascus' acceptance of a Russian plan that would force Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control. France, Britain and the United States welcomed the plan on Tuesday, but insisted that a binding U.N. resolution should set a timetable for Assad to execute the plan and should stipulate punitive measures in case of non-compliance.

According to the AP, the negotiations over the U.N. resolution are extremely tense. Russia reportedly objects to making the resolution militarily enforceable. Moscow also does not want the resolution to explicitly blame the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Damascus on Aug. 21.

Read more on the negotiations here.

Share this: tumblr

A U.N. commission announced on Wednesday it believes the regime of President Bashar Assad is responsible for at least eight massacres perpetrated in Syria in the past 18 months. The commission accuses rebel forces of one massacre.

More from the Associated Press:

The commission's probe highlights the worsening pattern of violence against civilians, including executions and hospital bombings, as the government battles to retake lost territory from the rebels, including Islamist foreign fighters who also have carried out war crimes.

"The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability. Referral to justice is imperative," says the report by the U.N. commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria.

Read the full story here.

Share this: tumblr

As the members of the United Nations debate a Russian proposal to force the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad to surrender its chemical weapons, HuffPost World looks back at the history of conflict in the Middle Eastern country.

Learn more about Syria's past, present and future in our explainer.

Share this: tumblr

The New York Times reports:

As the United States and Russia searched for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons, a four-person United Nations rights panel presented detailed evidence on Wednesday of what they said were war crimes and crimes against humanity still being committed by both sides in the 30-month-old conflict.

Bolstered by arms and money from regional and global powers waging a proxy war, Syria’s government and rebel forces have committed murder, torture, rape and indiscriminate attacks on civilians on a huge scale, believing they can win a military victory and without fear of future punishment, the panel, a Commission of Inquiry, said in a report to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

Share this: tumblr

The Associated Press reports:

Sen. John McCain says the cause of rebels fighting Syria's President Bashar Assad has been obscured in the rapid-fire military and diplomatic events following a chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

McCain says, quote, "I feel very badly for my friends in the Free Syrian Army today."

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

The Huffington Post's Jen Bendery reports:

Medea Benjamin, the leader of the anti-war group Code Pink and perhaps the most easily recognizable protester in Washington, celebrated her 61st birthday in true form on Tuesday night: at a large protest outside the White House during President Barack Obama's national address on Syria.

The scene on the closed-off street was half party and half war protest. At least 100 people swarmed around a table set up in honor of Benjamin's birthday with free cupcakes and lemonade for anyone who walked up. Two women sang peace songs and played guitar; another guy hauled out a popcorn machine. But nearly everyone was also holding a sign or wearing a sticker opposing a military intervention in Syria.

"It seems very apropos to have a birthday out in front of the White House at a time when we're trying to mobilize for peace, but they're a little nervous about us," Benjamin told HuffPost, referring to police officers' response to the gear Code Pink brought to the scene. "They've got some 9/11 jitters."

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

Time reports:

Hunting down Syria’s chemical weapons — assuming the Russian-brokered deal to avert a U.S. strike pans out — is going to be a challenge. Destroying them after they are located, assuming that is the path to be followed, will be no day at the incinerator, either.

No one knows that better than the Pentagon.

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

The Huffington Post's Christina Wilkie reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry will spend much of Wednesday meeting with senior members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, as he attempts to press the case for U.S. engagement in Syria.

Kerry is scheduled to meet one-on-one with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger Wednesday afternoon, and address a meeting of the 25-member Foreign Affairs Policy Board Wednesday morning. On Wednesday evening, Kerry will host a dinner for FAPB members at the State Department, according to an official schedule.

Widely considered a godfather of U.S.-Russia relations, Kissinger served as Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford. As the nation's top diplomat, he pioneered the idea of developing a détente, or cooperation based on shared interests, between the leaders of the world's two nuclear superpowers.

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

A CNN/ORC survey of Americans who watched President Barack Obama speak Tuesday night found many optimistic about a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Syria. But respondents were split on whether Obama had made the case for taking action should negotiations fail. CNN's Paul Steinheuser writes:

A CNN/ORC International survey of speech-watchers conducted immediately after the conclusion of Obama's Tuesday address indicates that 61% support the president's position on Syria, with 37% opposing his response to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens ... The poll indicates that nearly two-thirds of those who watched the speech think that the situation in Syria is likely to be resolved through diplomatic efforts, with 35% disagreeing ... According to the poll, those who watched the president were divided on whether Obama made a convincing case in his speech for U.S. military action in Syria, with 47% saying he did and 50% saying he didn't."

The poll's results were influenced by the fact that more Democrats chose to tune in to the speech: The sample was 37 percent Democrats, 20 percent Republicans, and 43 percent independents. Nearly all public polling to date among the general public has found wide opposition to intervention against Syria. In a CNN/ORC survey released Monday, only 39 percent of Americans said Congress should pass a resolution that authorized limited military action.

--Ariel Edwards-Levy

Share this: tumblr

The AP reports:

ATLANTA — Former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday he believes the best path forward in Syria is for the United States to work out a deal with Russia for Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Carter, in an event at The Carter Center, said it would not be a catastrophe if Congress were to vote against President Barack Obama's call for military action against Syria while diplomatic efforts are pursued.

"A lot of presidents have submitted things that were extremely important to us, maybe even more important than bombing Syria, and we've been rejected by Congress," Carter said. "It's just something you have to live with in a democracy."

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

Share this: tumblr

HuffPost reports:

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he has ordered the military to maintain its posture with respect to striking Syria even as Congress postpones a vote authorizing that strike.

Speaking from the East Wing, he said, "I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails."

Click here for more.

Share this: tumblr

HuffPost is gathering reactions from politicians to Obama's speech.

Click here to read more.

Share this: tumblr

Click here to read the full text of Obama's speech.

Share this: tumblr

Share this: tumblr