- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Just a month after canceling a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin over behavior that President Obama characterized as childish, the White House said Wednesday that the U.S. is counting on Russia’s “prestige” to deliver a diplomatic solution to avert a military attack on Syria.

The spectacle of Mr. Putin tossing a diplomatic lifeline to the president highlights Mr. Obama’s persistent disadvantage in his dealings with Mr. Putin and Russia’s rising clout in the Middle East. The Russian leader also seemed to be rubbing Mr. Obama’s nose in it with a Thursday op-ed piece in the New York Times that lectured Mr. Obama on international law, the role of the United Nations and American exceptionalism.

“I can’t help but to think that the image of the United States in the region has deteriorated,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We just don’t look resolute. The president is moving all over the place.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday in Switzerland to try to reach a deal on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would require Syria to give up its chemical weapons or face consequences.

Russia’s offer Monday to broker the deal allowed Mr. Obama to request an indefinite postponement of a vote in Congress to authorize military force against Syria, a vote he likely would have lost. Mr. Obama requested the vote 10 days earlier, saying the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad had to be punished for a chemical weapons attack and that going to the United Nations was a futile exercise.

Given Russia’s history of blocking U.N. sanctions of Syria, its longtime ally, Moscow’s status on the international stage hangs in the balance with the success or failure of its proposal, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

“Russia is now putting its prestige on the line when it comes to moving further along this diplomatic avenue,” Mr. Carney said. “Russia is Assad’s and Syria’s closest ally. Russia has played the role of blocking international efforts, thus far, to hold Assad accountable.”

Mr. Kuchins scoffed at the argument.

“To say that this hinges on Russian prestige just seems kind of ridiculous,” he said. “The Russians could respond in all kinds of ways about what’s happened to U.S. prestige in the region over the course of weeks, months, two years of hardly successful Syria policy.

“It gets to the bad calculation the Obama administration made in underestimating the staying power of Assad.”

The White House’s attempt to appeal to Russia’s stature is particularly stunning because Mr. Obama a month ago canceled a meeting with Mr. Putin in a pique over Russia’s granting asylum to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

The president and his aides said there was no point in meeting because the two countries failed to make any progress on a swath of issues such as missile defense, in which the U.S. scaled back its deployments in Eastern Europe to assuage Russia but got little in return, and gay rights, on which Mr. Obama said he had “no patience for countries” that enacts laws to suppress gay-rights campaigns as Russia has.

“Our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit,” Mr. Carney said in August.

Russia has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. on several diplomatic issues apart from harboring Mr. Snowden, including using its U.N. Security Council veto to water down sanctions against Iran and North Korea and stifling any efforts to punish Syria even before the chemical attacks. Damascus has been a Kremlin ally and major arms customer for almost a half-century, whether “the Kremlin” has referred to Russia or to the Soviet Union.

But on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama seized on the escape hatch that Mr. Putin offered. In an address to the nation, Mr. Obama said he was delaying military action because the potential diplomatic solution was encouraging.

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