Speaking in London earlier today, John Kerry appeared to issue a long-shot ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that if he turned over his complete stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week he could avoid an attack from the United States. The State Department, however, would later walk back those comments, saying they were a “rhetorical argument” and not an actual proposal, adding that Assad “cannot be trusted” to take such action.
For a brief period this morning it appeared as though Kerry’s off-the-cuff hypothetical would largely remain overshadowed by his curious decision to call any American-led attack “unbelievably small.” But that changed this afternoon once Assad and his strongest ally, Russia, caught everyone off guard by suggesting that Kerry’s ad-libbed solution was actually workable.
It’s unclear whether their statements were an attempt to seize on the confusion caused by Kerry’s initial comments, or if they represented a real diplomatic breakthrough—but either way they appeared to rather drastically change the international debate, at least the moment.
First came word from Moscow, via the Wall Street Journal:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday backed a demand by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria put chemical weapons under international control and then destroy them, a rare sign of apparent agreement between Moscow and Washington.
“We have given our proposal to Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and are counting on a fast and, I hope, positive response,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters after a meeting with Mr. Moallem. He said he didn’t know whether Syria would agree.
And then, shortly after, word from Damascus, via ABC New:
Syria today “welcomed” an offer by Russia to put its chemical weapons arsenal under international control so that they could eventually be destroyed. Syria’s statement came very quickly after the proposal was made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in what he said was an attempt to avoid a U.S.-led strike on Syria. …
“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomed the Russian initiative, based on the concerns of the Russian leadership for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country,” [Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem] told reporters, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had added his support to the proposal, telling reporters that he is currently drawing up plans for Syria’s chemical weapons to be moved to a secure location where they could then be destroyed under the watchful eyes of U.N. officials, according to the Wall Street Journal.
At the moment, all this only makes an already complicated situation that much more so. The Obama administration is currently in the midst of its final push to convince skeptical lawmakers to give it the green-light to strike Syria, and it’s unclear how the new developments will impact the debate in Washington, let alone abroad where the White House still hopes to find a few more allies. Of course, with congressional approval for a U.S.-led strike uncertain to say the least, it’s quite possible that Kerry may have accidentally stumbled onto a potential face-saving solution for the administration.
For what it’s worth, Kerry’s initial comments came when asked if there was anything Assad could do to avert an American-led attack. “Sure, he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry said. “But he isn’t about to.”
This post has been updated.