When asked by a CBS reporter during a press conference if there was anything Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad could do to avert a military strike, Secretary of State John Kerry casually suggested that his regime could hand over all of its chemical weapons to international monitors.
“Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that.” To demonstrate just how unrealistic he deemed the possibility, Kerry quickly added that Assad was unlikely to even consider the idea. “He isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Forty-eight hours later, Kerry’s offhand remark has turned into a major diplomatic initiative led by the Russians to postpone or cancel outright an American airstrike on Assad’s military bases.
Hours after Kerry made his comments, the Russian government announced that it had formally asked the Syrians to voluntarily commit to the disarmament of their chemical weapons program, a plea that was quickly accepted by the wartorn country’s foreign minister Walid Muallem.
Indeed, the prospect of Assad handing over his chemical weapons stockpile was so tempting to outside powers that President Barack Obama, in a primetime speech to the nation, said Congress would hold off on voting to authorize military action in order to see the proposal through.
From the early moves in Moscow, it appears at least on the surface that the Russians are serious in resolving the Syrian chemical weapons issue in a collaborative process through the United Nations. Sensing that an American attack on a Middle Eastern ally was imminent, Russia likely determined that a diplomatic miracle was needed to give Assad more time to fend off his opponents. The Russian government handed over a rough blueprint to American negotiators on what they envision the disarmament plan to entail while Kerry met his Russian counterpart in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday to discuss the plan in more detail.
Negotiating the nuts and bolts of the proposal, however, will be a difficult task for the United Nations Security Council — a body that has been unable to do anything about Syria’s civil war for more than two years, given Chinese and Russian opposition to outside intervention.
The difficulty of implementing the plan was made clear almost immediately when the Russians postponed a planned Security Council meeting on Tuesday over objections to a draft French resolution that would have pinned the blame on Assad for a chemical weapons attack last month in the Damascus suburbs that likely killed hundreds of civilians. Ramming through a compromise resolution in the Security Council could be a long and tedious process.
Before the plan can be enacted on the ground, American and European negotiators in New York will have to find a way around Chinese and Russian reluctance to codify the Russian disarmament proposal into a binding, international agreement. In order to succeed at the United nations level, compromises need to be made and a middle ground between the West and Russia found.
The first key issue that could scuttle the diplomatic project is whether the Russian plan will be backed up by the threat of force if Assad fails to hand over his chemical weapons and in time. If the Russians continue to stonewall on this question or outright refuse punishment in the event of Syrian resistance, Britain, France and the United States may very well come to the conclusion that Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvering was neither sincere nor designed to succeed. Rather, it will be viewed in Western capitals as a ploy to delay an American strike.
How the foreign ministers meeting in Geneva goes will serve as a prelude to whether the United Nations are able to deal united with what is one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.