Mardell: Obama finds reason to pause

Protest in Washington against US military action in Syria. 9 Sept 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Most US citizens oppose a military strike on Syria

President Barack Obama has hit the pause button - and sounds more relieved than resolute in his interviews.

Both possible military action against Syria and the vote that could have spelled disaster for the president are on hold.

It is not exactly "with one bound he was free", but it is at least a breathing space for him.

One way of avoiding a "no" vote is not holding it.

The president's attitude stands in stark contrast to that of his Secretary of State John Kerry and the line of officials who seemed brusquely dismissive of the Russian plan.

The spokesperson at the state department labelled it a delaying tactic and denied that it had been discussed with the Russians.

President Obama, by contrast, confirmed that he did discuss it with President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg.

He said he "fervently hoped" that the crisis over Syria's use of chemical weapons could be "resolved in a non-military way" - he would exhaust all diplomatic options before taking action. He didn't mention the idea of punishing the Assad regime for crossing his red lines.

He said he wanted to hear the sort of language the Russians were using and get a sense of how serious they were.

The hawks in Congress may not like this but many Democrats will.

It is difficult to say if President Obama genuinely thinks this could be a resolution or if he is going out of his way to give peace a chance.

Either way, he was clear that he wanted to "slow this thing down".

The Senate was thinking of holding a first vote on Wednesday. That now won't happen. President Obama suggested that it could be a couple of weeks before there are any votes.

At the end of the process he could just look like the smartest guy in the room - if Syria really was on track to give up its weapons, going to Congress and delaying action wouldn't look so dumb.

If it seems they and the Russian aren't serious, exhausting all diplomatic possibilities might convince a few more members of Congress to vote his way for military action.

The real danger would be getting dragged into a long-running mess, where weapons inspectors are given the run-around and Mr Obama looks gullible.

There are lots of options, many ways this could pan out, but the Russian intervention has dramatically changed the situation.