Russia and the United States worked out a secret way to agree on a resolution to the Syria crisis, with Assad giving up his chemical weapons. Or maybe the Russians are trolling John Kerry again. As Monday evolved, it seemed increasingly possible that the first possibility was the accurate one.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the British Foreign Office, offered the idea in response to a journalist's question about how strikes on Syria could be averted. The Independent reports Kerry said:
“Sure, [Assad] 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 the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done.”
Kerry's tone was largely dismissive of the idea, as the video on that page shows. The State Department also quickly declared the secretary's comments to be "rhetorical," CNN reports.
The Russians, however, appear to be taking the idea seriously. The Associated Press reports that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov embraced Kerry's suggestion in a statement from Moscow.
Sergey Lavrov said Monday that if such a move would help avert a possible U.S. strike on Syria, Russia will start work "immediately" to persuade Syria to relinquish control over its chemical arsenals.
Given the proximity of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, in which high-level representatives of a number of governments it's natural to wonder if Kerry's suggestion was the result of a pre-planned agreement with the Russian government. These things happen; there are reports that the United States is currently engaged in back channel negotiations with Iran, for example. Was this perhaps an agreement reached though intermediaries to get both Syria and the United States out of their respective political predicaments?
Probably not. During the same press conference, Kerry also provided fodder to administration opponents by suggesting that any strikes would be "unbelievably small." It did not take long for that line to become integral to a number of unflattering jokes. It's much easier to believe, then Kerry raised an idea that even he found ridiculous, but one which allowed his Russian counterpart to score a few points. By seizing on the idea, Russia can simultaneously rebut critique that it is obstructing progress in international efforts to curb the use of chemical weapons and to put Kerry in the uncomfortable position of having to possibly explain why giving up those weapons isn't sufficient punishment.
The State Department has not yet responded to Lavrov's offer. That response will almost certainly be dismissive. (Update: The White House has, as below; it was not dismissive.) If it isn't, perhaps this was an elegantly orchestrated plan, worked out over black coffee in a St. Petersburg hotel between anonymous representatives from the two countries — a plan riding on Kerry's offhanded response to a posed question. The idea that Russia is trying to make things diplomatically uncomfortable for the United States — trolling, in the common vernacular — seems much more likely.
Update, 12:00 p.m.: Third option! Syria and Russia are messing with the United States together. Reuters reports that the Syrian Foreign Minister "welcomes Russia's proposal" to give up its chemical arms. Which is understandable; Bashar al-Assad isn't giving interviews to Charlie Rose out of a generous spirit, after all. If this helps to avert or delay cruise missile strikes, it's natural that Syria would be supportive.
Update, 1:40 p.m.: Speaking at the daily White House press briefing, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken was asked about the proposal, which he'd "literally just heard about ... some hours ago."
"We'll obviously discuss the proposal with the Russians," Blinken said. "But it's clear that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of American action. It's important we not take the pressure off." (The team's Ben Rhodes tweeted something similar.)
"Of course we would welcome Assad giving up his weapons," he said. "That's the whole purpose of what we're trying to accomplish."
Later, Obama spokesman Jay Carney was asked if the development of the idea had been planned. "I will only say," he replied, "there are on-going conservations about this at the highest level." He refused to say if strikes would move forward as the country considered Syria's response to the idea.
Update, 2:30 p.m.: In Hillary Clinton's remarks on Monday, she echoed the same sentiment.
Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.
If this was a gaffe by Kerry, it was a very popular one.
Update, 3:14 p.m.: Asked about the proposal, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told reporters that the organization may "demand Syria move its chemical arms stocks to Syrian sites where they can be safely stored and destroyed."
Update, 6:00 p.m.: It now seems clear that the United States and Russia discussed the idea of calling off military strikes in exchange for Syria giving up its chemical weapons.
Obama says he talked with Putin directly at G20 about some of the plans Russia announced today.— Matt Viser (@mviser) September 9, 2013
Speaking with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, President Obama said that the administration would "run the proposal to ground" and would "take this seriously." To NBC: "this could potentially be a significant breakthrough."
(Photo via Associated Press.)