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Syria speech: What’s next on President Obama’s to-do list

9/12/2013, midnight
If you take the long view—and by “long view” we’re talking 10 days—there have been three distinct paths the United ...
President Barack Obama meets with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the Oval Office to discuss Syria, Sept. 2, 2013. National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice is at left. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

If you take the long view—and by “long view” we’re talking 10 days—there have been three distinct paths the United States could have taken on Syria.

First, way back on August 31, President Barack Obama seemed imminently close to a strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. After Labor Day, came a detour toward seeking congressional approval. That effort was overwhelmingly met by the public with a “No thanks. We’ll pass.” Then this week, thanks to a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry that may or may not have been off the cuff, Obama made a sharp turn—toward diplomacy.

For now, he’s sticking with option 3.

During a prime-time speech to the American people Tuesday, Obama pressed the pause button on his hard sell for a military strike, and said he’s waiting to see what kind of viable, verifiable plan Russia comes up with for al-Assad to give up his cache of chemical weapons. But Obama says he’ll keep U.S. forces ready in case al-Assad’s bluffing. Call it carrot-and-stick diplomacy.

Here’s what’s on Obama’s to-do list for the coming days.

Make plans

Send Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart. The hope is that Kerry and Sergey Lavrov can draw up a timeline for Syria to hand over all its chemical weapons.

The bad news: This is a crucial meeting, because the United States and Russia haven’t always seen eye to eye. Many of the next steps, a White House official says, depend on what’s agreed upon there.

The good news: Despite a sometimes icy relationship with Russia, Kerry and Lavrov have been able to work well in the past.

The talks should last two days. If a deal is reached, it’s on to the United Nations next.

Keep courting

Keep wooing a lukewarm Congress. Even though Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote on military action, the White House will push the idea, in case diplomacy fails.

The bad news: Despite bending the ears of 93 senators and more than 350 members of the House since Friday, lawmakers weren’t flocking to Team Obama. A CNN tally showed there was growing dissent in both chambers.

The good news: Some are slowly coming around. A bipartisan group of eight senators is working on an alternative resolution that, according to Republican Sen. John McCain, will include “guidelines, reporting process and benchmarks that have to be met” before letting the United States unleash its military might.

Set a deadline

How long should al-Assad get to comply? In his speech Tuesday night, Obama didn’t specify.

The bad news: No one’s quite certain. After meeting with Obama on Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin said the president “asked for some time to work things out—a matter of days into next week.” Sen. Carl Levin said, “I don’t know if he put a specified period on it. He thought it could be fairly short.” And Kerry said, “The president will decide what he thinks is the timeframe that he is prepared to live with.”