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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Barack Obama, having just squeezed out of one political box on Syria, is not about to jump into a new one by setting a time limit on crisis diplomacy.

In his address to Americans on Tuesday, the U.S. president advanced moral, logical and geopolitical rationales for unleashing military force to punish Damascus for a chemical weapons attack.

But there were no hints as to how long Obama will let a Russian plan to secure Syria’s chemical arms, play out before summoning his generals.

Will it be days, weeks or months before Obama decides whether Moscow’s maneuvering is a face saver or has meandered to a diplomatic dead end?

The White House won’t say, reluctant to string another political trip wire for Obama, who talked himself into trouble by warning Syria that using chemical weapons would cross a red line.

“He did not want to box himself in,” said James Goldgeier, Dean of the School of International Service at American University.

Ahead of crucial U.S.-Russia talks on Syria in Geneva Thursday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney tangoed around timing queries.

“I don’t have a timeline to give you,” Carney said.

“What I can say is it obviously will take some time …. but we are also not interested in delaying tactics.”

Some foreign policy experts faulted Obama’s speech because it was foggy on when Syria would have to hand over its chemical weapons.

The absence of a countdown will lower the pressure on Damascus and take the heat off Russia, they say.

“Is he going to give them 24 hours to demonstrate Syrian compliance? 96 hours? a week? a month? Longer?” asked Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

“All need to understand how the president intends to judge the success of failure of the Russian initiative, and how long he intends to give it to succeed or fail so we can know whether we are going to use force in Syria and when.”

The White House insists the last minute Russian diplomatic effort to head off U.S. air strikes only emerged because Obama’s threats of force were credible.

But the more time elapses after the August 21 chemical outrage, the more the momentum behind idea that Washington really is ready to fire off its cruise missile will inevitably dim.

Given mistrust between Russia and Western powers, the complexity of the Syria question and the difficulty of disposing of its chemical arsenal amid a brutal civil war, the chances of a swift resolution seem slim.

So it could be weeks or months until a solution is reached — assuming the Russian initiative does not crumble before then.

But for political and strategic purposes, the White House sees no advantage so far in talking timing.

Deadlines once set, also have a habit of expiring — and Obama aides will be loath to commit their boss to any preordained course of action on a matter of war and peace.

But without a timeline concentrating minds, diplomacy can dawdle.

“The disadvantage is that there is only going to be action on the diplomatic front if the Syrians and the Russians believe that the US threat to use force is credible,” said Goldgeier.