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Is the U.S. back to square one on Syria?

By Leigh Ann Caldwell
updated 9:39 AM EDT, Wed September 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russia, U.S. disagree on how to hold Syrian leader accountable for getting rid of chemical weapons
  • Republicans in Congress criticize the Obama administration over Russian negotiations
  • The president's defenders say the naysayers are playing politics with national security

Washington (CNN) -- Dispute between Russia and the United States over the terms of a path to rid Syria of its chemical weapons has caused fissures in the latest round of diplomatic efforts.

Disagreement between the two chief negotiators over the repercussions of a potential failure by Syria to comply has the potential to unravel an agreement.

Syria is supposed to begin the process of turning over its chemical weapons stockpile next week, but Russia and the United States disagree on how to hold Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad accountable.

In short, Russia doesn't want to punish Syria militarily for failure to turn over its weapons stockpile and Washington wants to keep the threat of military action front and center.

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The United States and its allies insist a plan before the U.N. Security Council be moved under Chapter VII, which means the use of military force remains on the table "should diplomacy fail."

But Russia objects.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Labrov said on Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry is misunderstanding the deal, according to Russia's state-run Itar-Tass news agency. It shows Kerry's "unwillingness to read the document."

With that major sticking point, it begs the question: Is the United States back to square one, where al-Assad still possesses chemical weapons, fighting -- and dying - continues in the Syrian civil war and the Obama administration still lacks international consensus?

'The diplomatic advantage'

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers indicated that that's the case.

"Not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield, but we've given up every ounce of our leverage when it comes to trying to solve the broader Syrian problem, because we've taken away a credible military threat," Rogers said on CNN on Sunday.

An advocate of military action, Rogers argued that not only is the United States in the same place it began when President Barrack Obama said it planned to enforce its "red line" on chemical weapons use, he said the United States is in a weaker position after negotiations with Russia.

Through negotiations, some Republicans say the administration has given "the diplomatic advantage" to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, told reporters on Tuesday that he's "skeptical of a game plan that will lead to an outcome and it looks more like, frankly, an effort to guarantee Assad stays in power."

Facing a reelection challenge, McConnell added that "Russians now have more influence in the Middle East as a result of their intervention and the administration buying their solution than they've had since the 1970s."

Tuesday's op-ed pages are filled with similar sentiment, criticizing the current U.S. standing in the negotiations.

Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy for President George W. Bush, argues that the U.S. policy has emboldened other dictators.

In a harsh op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled "A very productive chemical-weapons attack," Feith said, "clever dictators will realize that they can barter their chemical-weapons arsenals to buy time to crush an insurrection and then rebuild the arsenal after the population has been pacified."

Much of the skepticism comes as much from a deep distrust of the U.S. negotiating partner as it does from a place of philosophical disagreement with Obama.

In a CNN.com opinion piece, Robert Hutching, also a former Bush administration official, did not mince words.

The former chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council said, "(T)he administration's cautious approach has unraveled, and the president has wholly lost control over U.S. policy," he wrote.

He said negotiating with the Russians means "the opportunities for delay and obfuscation are endless, and we will wind up having allowed the al-Assad regime to escape any retribution or indeed any consequences at all for its use of chemical weapons."

Masha Gessen, a journalist and author of a biography of Vladimir Putin also said al-Assad and Putin have won this round.

In a New York Times op-ed, Gessen said difficult negotiations will batter the United States and disarmament would be expensive and difficult.

"The civil war in Syria will continue to rage, claiming more lives and robbing the Syrian people of hope with every passing day. Ultimately, the United States and its good-faith partners will have to admit the chemical-disarmament project has failed, as Syria lies in ruins — still ruled by Assad," Gessen wrote.

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While opinionated experts are sharply critical, the American public, however, appears to support the president's current path. A CNN/ORC International poll from a week ago said seven in 10 opposed U.S. intervention and 61% supported the president's plan to try negotiating with the Russians.

'Significant gain'

A defender of the president took to the Senate floor Tuesday, criticizing naysayers for playing politics with national security. Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, said, "Removing weapons of mass destruction from the hand of a brutal dictator... is the direct result of American leadership."

"Speculation as to motives, or about potential winners and losers, or who's up and who's down, miss the point," he added. "A month or a year or five years ago, an agreement to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons would have been seen as a significant gain."

At about the same time the United Nation's Security Council is meeting to hammer out the details of the Syrian resolution, Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

While topic of discussion at the United Nations is likely to be around repercussions if Syria fails to comply, especially since Russia sits on the Security Council and has the power to override any agreement, Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that U.S. force remains on the table.

"I'm looking forward to keeping the use of credible force on the table, because that's the only reason we've gotten to this point, even to this possibility," he said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But as of now, the Senate has no intention of reviving the congressional resolution calling on the use of force.

CNN's Holly Yan, Phil Black, Ted Barrett and Ashley Killough contributed to this report

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