How did a seemingly offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry become the back-from-the-brink solution for Syria?
As diplomatic crises go, this one has had more twists and turns than a Wild Mouse.
First there was the endless hand wringing over red lines turning pink and America losing its credibility in the world. When it seemed inevitable that US bombs would begin to fall on Syria within days or even hours, President Barack Obama suddenly announced that he was seeking congressional approval for a strike.
Now, that plan’s on pause and America’s top diplomat is set to meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss a whole different tack to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from unleashing chemical weapons on civilians.
That’s thanks to this week’s surprise development: Secretary of State John Kerry, in an apparently offhand answer to a reporter’s question, said Assad could avert a US strike if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”
Kerry did not oversell it. “But [Assad] isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” he said.
Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov floated a proposal to defuse the Syrian crisis based on Kerry’s suggestion, and almost everyone was in love with it.
It’s not hard to see why: For many of the main actors in this drama, the Russian-Kerry proposal offers a life preserver in a very stormy sea.
President Barack Obama would be a big winner if this proposal grows legs. The American president is in an increasingly desperate struggle with Congress and his public over Syria. Many argue that Obama has failed to make the case for an attack: He has not made the public understand what can be gained, and why it is in America’s interests to intervene in Syria now.
Last weekend Obama announced he was seeking congressional approval for a strike, but vote counts show that he has an extremely slim chance of getting a nod from the House.
If Congress rejects his bid for authorization to use military force, he would have to decide whether to lose credibility on the world stage or proceed anyway, an action that some — his own vice president, in fact — have called an impeachable offense.
A diplomatic solution could be the answer to a prayer.
In the course of his interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, one of six he gave on Monday to try and lobby the public, Obama went from taking Russia’s proposal with a “grain of salt” to acknowledging it as a “potentially positive development” to hailing it as a “significant breakthrough.”
In fact, he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace, it was his idea.
“Uh, this is something that is not new. I’ve been discussing this with, uh, President Putin for some time now,” Obama said.
Russia is doubtless enjoying its unusual position as Washington’s savior. In adopting and formalizing Kerry’s casual proposal, Russia asserts its position as a world leader, protects its ally Syria, and avoids what could have been a nasty showdown at the United Nations.
The move also, potentially, secures Syria’s chemical weapons and ensures that Islamic militants in Russia’s extended backyard do not gain access to the deadly chemical weapons stockpiles.
Moscow has the clout to pressure Assad into at least considering the proposal. It can also marshal support from China, the other Security Council member that had been blocking a resolution on Syria.
By Monday night, China and Iran had signaled their support for Syria handing over its chemical weapons to international inspectors.
“China always believes that a political settlement is the only realistic way to solve the Syrian issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “We should insist on this direction without wavering.”
In Tehran, newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran“welcomes Moscow’s initiative at this stage to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Islamic Republic of Iran sees this initiative as a way to halt militarization in the region.”
Bashar al-Assad may or may not be on board with the proposal; it’s hard to know, since he apparently only talks to Charlie Rose. In his interview Sunday with the PBS television host, Assad would neither confirm nor deny that his regime possesses chemical weapons.
But his prime minister, Wael al-Halki, told Syrian state television that the government backed Russia’s initiative “to spare Syrian blood,” while his less diplomatic foreign minister, Walid Muallem, told Russian media that Syria agreed because it would “remove grounds for American aggression.”
It seems in Assad’s best interests to avoid a strike, even what Kerry called an “unbelievably small” one since Assad is fighting for his political and, perhaps, even physical life in his dealings with the rebel uprising.
The fact that the initiative comes from his ally, Russia, is a major plus. Assad would most likely have summarily dismissed any such proposal from the United States, since he would seem to be caving in to a threat of force.
The European Union is studying “with interest” proposals for Syria to put its chemical weapons beyond use, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Tuesday.
Spokesman Michael Mann said it is “vital that this is a serious proposal and it will be followed through and respected by all parties.”
Individual European actors are even more gung-ho. Obama had mustered hardly any takers among them in his bid to build a coalition of states willing to attack Syria, as the union’s members face stiff domestic opposition to a military adventure and longed for a diplomatic path.
France, however, had stood shoulder to shoulder with the US government in proposing the use of force against the Assad regime. But Paris seems to be welcoming the chance to escape.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius proposed a UN resolution that would have set numerous conditions for Syria’s reprieve, but on Tuesday he acknowledged that Russia was “not necessarily enthusiastic, and I’m using a euphemism, to frame all this in a binding UN resolution.”
Russia has consistently blocked any UN action that would state or imply that Assad was behind the chemical weapons attacks against his own civilians.
The UK is eager to get back in the game, after Prime Minister David Cameron’s humiliating thrashing at the hands of his parliament last week, when lawmakers soundly rejected a military strike against Syria. Cameron has been on the phone with Obama Tuesday, and has said that the UK, France and the US would table a UN resolution Tuesday night designed to expose Moscow’s plan as either serious or “a ruse.”
Ban Ki-moon: The UN secretary general has been calling for restraint and patience for weeks now, and was emphatic in his insistence that all parties “give peace a chance” In Syria.
Ban has been enthusiastic in his response to Russia’s proposal, and has already said he would urge the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to internationally controlled sites inside the country where they could be destroyed.
About the only naysayers so far have been members of pro-Western factions of the Syrian rebel forces, who want Assad hit hard. Their own survival is as stake, they say.
The opposition Free Syrian Army urged the world not to buy into the idea of transferring control of the chemical weapons, which it called a trick.
“Here we go again with the regime trying to buy more time in order to keep on the daily slaughter against our innocent civilians and to fool the world,” said Louay al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the group.
Mokdad is not the only one concerned with possible “stalling tactics.”
Saudi Arabia, which has worked to rally Arab states in support of international action against Assad, could also be disappointed.
They and other Gulf backers of Syrian rebels “are likely to be skeptical about the Russian proposal and discontent at the direction this has taken,” Brian Katulis, a Middle East and South Asia specialist at Center for American Progress, told Los Angeles Times.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, finally speaking out about Syria, said that it could be “an important step” if Syria would surrender its chemical weapons to international control.
“But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction,” she insisted.
However, in the superheated and extremely dangerous atmosphere of the Syrian crisis, a delay — otherwise known as a breather — might be the main advantage of Russia’s proposal for everyone involved.
This article originally was published at Global Post.