Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

Putin Scores on Syria

How He Got the Upper Hand -- And How He Will Use It

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama are pictured on a video screen at the G-20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama are pictured on a video screen installed in the press center of the G-20 Summit in Strelna near St. Petersburg, September 5, 2013. (Grigory Dukor / Courtesy Reuters)

On Monday, September 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a diplomatic move that seemed to catch the entire international community, not just U.S. President Barack Obama and his team, by surprise. He seized the most dramatic moment possible -- the eve of what was to be a fateful vote in the U.S. Congress on Obama’s decision to launch a targeted strike against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad -- to propose that Syria surrender its chemical weapons to an international commission headed by the United Nations. Assad quickly agreed to the proposal, at least in principle.

By the evening of September 10, after a day full of calls from every imaginable corner to pursue Putin’s plan, Obama seemed to back away from threats of imminent military action. In a live address to the nation, he requested a delay in the congressional vote, announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would meet with the Russians to hash things out, pushed for the United Nations to maintain the diplomatic pressure on Assad, and put another round of the Syrian game in motion. Putin then further pressed his advantage by demanding a promise from Washington not to attack Assad if the Syrian leader surrenders his chemical weapons.

Whether or not the Russian plan succeeds, Putin's team will surely paint it as a diplomatic coup, a show of more finess than the Obama team has been able to muster. For one, Putin was able to capitalize on what appeared to be a gaffe by Kerry at a press conference in the United Kingdom on Monday. In response to a journalist’s question, Kerry had asserted that the only way for Assad to avoid a strike was to turn over his entire chemical arsenal. The U.S. State Department subsequently walked back Kerry’s statement, but it was then that Putin pounced by seconding the disarmament plan. In interviews, Obama suggested he had discussed the contours of the proposal with Putin when the Russian president pulled him aside at the G-20 summit. Other international players have claimed the general idea was theirs. Still others maintain the core concept had been in the diplomatic works for some time.

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