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As Syria talks with Russia, Obama’s ‘red line’ starts to fade

U.S. military option a sticking point

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President Obama's "red line" vow of action against Syria turned a lighter shade of pink Thursday, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry saying a U.S. military strike "might" be necessary if talks led by Russia fail to compel Syria to turn over its chemical weapons.

As negotiators met in Switzerland on the unfolding crisis, Mr. Kerry appeared to concede the diplomatic reins to the Russians, who are insisting that the U.S. withdraw its threat of missile strikes before the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad agrees to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

"President Obama has made clear that, should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary to deter and degrade Assad's capacity to deliver these weapons," Mr. Kerry said in Geneva after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

His comment offered less certainty than President Obama had of a missile strike. Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he was keeping U.S. forces in the region "in a position to respond if diplomacy fails." Asked about Mr. Kerry's remark, the White House said the secretary of state had not misspoken.

"I think that that allows for, you know, a variety of things that could happen in the next days and weeks with regard to this matter," said White House press secretary Jay Carney, adding that "a military option is important to maintain."

Events in the Syria crisis continued to develop at a fast-moving clip Thursday, with much of the action happening far from the White House. Russian President Vladimir Putin, after penning a New York Times op-ed panning the U.S. approach to the Syrian crisis and the idea of American "exceptionalism," pushed forward with his own plan for resolving the crisis. In New York, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters that he had formally presented to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon his country's application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention as a first step to putting the regime's stockpiles under international control.

In Damascus, Mr. Assad announced that he had signed the papers putting the treaty accession into motion while pointedly noting that he was responding to Moscow's offer and not to the threats from Washington.

Mr. Kerry's comments in Geneva signaled a further downsizing of Mr. Obama's original vow to punish the Syrian regime for an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that the U.S. said killed 1,429 people near Damascus. Mr. Obama had been saying for a year that such an atrocity using Syria's known chemical weapons would cross a "red line" requiring a tough U.S. response.

On Aug. 31, Mr. Obama said he had decided to launch a "limited" attack on Syria to prevent it from using chemical weapons again, but he would wait for Congress to vote on the use of military force. A few days later, Mr. Obama said he hadn't created the "red line" but the international community had, and therefore his credibility was not at stake.

On Monday, Russia seized on an offhand remark from Mr. Kerry to float its own deal through the United Nations to avoid a U.S. strike against Syria. On Tuesday, Mr. Obama asked Congress to hold off a vote indefinitely on military action while he pursued the diplomatic course.

Mr. Kerry Thursday tried to lay down new conditions before Washington would agree to any deal between Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad.

"This is not a game," Mr. Kerry said. "It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion. And finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place."

Mr. Lavrov called for rules under which Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and said a solution "will make unnecessary" a military strike on Syria.

But Mr. Assad told the Russian TV interviewer that he would agree to turn over Syria's chemical weapons only if the U.S. drops its threat of attack.

"This does not mean that Syria will sign these documents, carry out the conditions and that's it," Mr. Assad said. "This bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria."

Mr. Obama and his aides kept up his tit-for-tat exchange of insults with Mr. Putin. Responding to the Russian leader's New York Times op-ed that belittled Mr. Obama's claim of "American exceptionalism," the White House shot back at the lack of openness in Russian society.

"Russia offers a stark contrast that demonstrates why America is exceptional," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world."

Mr. Carney said Mr. Putin enjoyed a freedom of expression in his op-ed that the Russian government does not tolerate from its own citizens.

"There's a great irony ... in the placement of an op-ed like this because it reflects the truly exceptional tradition in this country of freedom of expression," Mr. Carney said. "And that is not a tradition shared in Russia, by Russia. Freedom of expression has been on the decrease over the past dozen or so years in Russia."

The disrespectful rhetoric seemed like an inauspicious foundation for a diplomatic solution to Syria, and Mr. Obama's aides said they remained skeptical that the talks would produce results. But Mr. Kerry said in Geneva that diplomacy was "clearly preferable to military action."

Mr. Kerry said the U.S. is "serious about engaging in substantive, meaningful negotiations even as our military maintains its current posture to keep up the pressure on the Assad regime." He said the Russian proposal is an "immense" challenge.

"It's too early to tell whether these efforts will succeed," he said. "The technical challenges of trying to do this in the context of a civil war are obviously immense. But despite how difficult this is, with the collaboration of our experts — and only with the compliance of the Assad regime — we do believe there is a way to get this done."

In his op-ed, Mr. Putin chided Mr. Obama for threatening military action, writing, "We must stop using the language of force."

But Mr. Kerry said the threat of a U.S. attack brought Russia and Syria to the bargaining table.

"Only the credible threat of force — and the intervention of President Putin and Russia based on that — has brought the Assad regime to acknowledge for the first time that it even has chemical weapons," he said.

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