Russia's Syria Initiative Obama Postpones Attack on Assad
Potential US strikes against the Assad regime now appear to be postponed until further notice after US President Barack Obama said he was open to a Russian plan to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control. But many doubt the plan will work.
CNN's chief news anchor Wolf Blitzer can sometimes hit the wrong note. Like on Monday night, for example, when he gave Barack Obama an inane stage direction in the middle of an interview: "Look into the camera, talk directly to President Bashar Assad." Obama refused to play along. "I don't need to talk into the camera. I suspect he's got people who will be watching this."
The US President nonetheless had a message for the Syrian authorities: he would take "seriously" Russian efforts to bring the Assad regime's chemical weapons under international supervision. The initiative is a "potentially positive development" and could avert a US military strike -- in certain circumstances: "It is possible, if it is real," Obama said. "We may be able to arrive at a consensus [ ] ."
Obama repeated those thoughts almost verbatim in five other TV interviews, which were originally scheduled on the eve of his planned speech to the nation on Tuesday as part of a PR campaign supporting intervention. But barely an hour later, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, struck the first test vote on a military intervention from the agenda. It had been scheduled for Tuesday -- but now won't take place until next week at the earliest.
Western involvement in Syria, it would seem, has been called off for the time being.
This latest development will change little in the civil war in Syria, but it gives the West extra time to debate possible military strikes against the Assad regime. Now is the time for diplomacy, Obama said, and the US will consult with Russia and the world "to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious."
On ABC, Obama even went a bit further. If Syria does yield control of its chemical weapons, are "we back from the brink" and does it mean that military strikes are "on pause," asked Diane Sawyer? "Absolutely," the president replied, "if, in fact, that happens." At NBC, he spoke of a potentially "significant breakthrough."
The interviews each lasted at most eight minutes, with the six reporters sitting in turn on the same chair opposite Obama in the Blue Room at the White House. But it was enough to change the direction of the debate and set diplomatic wires aglow from Moscow and London to Washington and Damascus.
All sides could theoretically call it a victory. Assad would win time; Russia could present itself as a peacemaker. And for Obama, it would be a way out of the impasse into which he has maneuvered himself.
The already weak support in Congress for American military strikes has further dwindled recently. Likewise, the US population is becoming more skeptical; surveys show that a majority are strongly opposed.
The latest initiative was triggered in London where Kerry met his British counterpart William Hague on Monday. At a subsequent news conference Kerry gave the following answer when a reporter asked whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a military strike:
"Sure, 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 the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
It appeared to be a spontaneous, off-the-cuff remark rather than an official ultimatum. Even the State Department backtracked, saying Kerry's statement was "rhetorical and hypothetical."
But then Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pounced on the idea. "We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only to agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," Lavrov said, according to the website of Russian TV network RT.
He was speaking after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. "We have passed our offer to Walid al-Muallem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer," said Lavrov. Al-Muallem's response was vague. "Syria welcomes the Russian proposal," he said, without making any promises.
This apparently uncoordinated initiative fuelled speculation that this was merely a feint by Syria and Russia. But Obama revealed in his TV interviews that he had already discussed the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putun at last week's G-20 summit. "This is not new," he said. CNN chief correspondent Christiane Amanpour reported that diplomats had been discussing the proposal for weeks.
Two senators had already formulated a similar resolution in Washington. Democrats Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp proposed giving Assad a 45-day deadline to sign the convention on chemical weapons. Obama would get the same deadline to present Congress with a new political peace strategy for Syria.
So it's possible that Kerry jumped the gun by openly talking about an idea that hadn't been fleshed out yet. But after his remark in London, the idea took on a life of its own. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the proposal and offered to make the UN system available to implement it. Even Hillary Clinton, Kerry's predecessor as Secretary of State, got involved. After a meeting with Obama in the White House she called the proposal an "important step" -- a term that had obviously been agreed with Obama in advance.
Other officials remain skeptical, though. Deputy US National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken pointed out that Syria had been refusing to sign the chemical weapons convention "for 20 years." Implementing the new proposal would "take time, resources and a peaceful environment," he said. Obama's spokesman Jay Carney also said he was "very skeptical."
There's certainly cause for doubt. No one knows whether Syria would just be accepting the proposal to gain time. Experts also doubt whether controlling Syria's chemical weapons arsenal -- possibly under the auspices of the UN -- would even be possible.
It was almost impossible to say with any certainty where Assad had hidden his arsenal, let alone who was really in control of it, Jon Wolfsthal, former nuclear advisor to US Vice President Joe Biden, wrote in his blog.
Citing an unnamed government official, the New York Times reported that the US only knows the location of just 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria. The number keeps changing. "If Assad said he was turning this stuff over, how would we know if he has really complied?" the official said, according to the Times.
Previous UN weapons agreements, such as those made with Iraq and Iran, could serve as a basis for a Syrian deal. But they haven't exactly been great success stories.
The White House plans to begin discussing the initiative on Tuesday. Obama will visit Capitol Hill to personally inform Democrats and Republicans. On Tuesday evening, he will hold his address to the nation on Syria. What he will say is now more open than ever.