An answer to a question at a news conference may provide the way off of the limb for the U.S. and Syria.
Russia and Syria embraced Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s suggestion Monday that the Syrian government could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control, upending the Obama administration’s efforts to sharpen its case for military action.
U.S. officials said Kerry’s comment, made in response to a question at a news conference in London, was not intended to be a diplomatic opening. But Kerry’s Russian and Syrian counterparts quickly followed up, and the idea drew immediate interest internationally and from top Democrats in Washington.
By the end of the day, President Obama conceded that the idea of monitoring and ultimately destroying Syria’s arsenal “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.” The Senate postponed a vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to back a proposed punitive strike.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt, initially,” Obama said in an interview with NBC that was among several he gave Monday in pursuit of public backing for a military strike in response to an alleged Aug. 21 gas attack on Syrian civilians.
“We are going to run this to ground,” Obama said. “We’re going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.”
The president plans to address the nation Tuesday evening in a speech originally planned to be the capstone of a newly focused moral and political case to rally a skeptical public and reluctant lawmakers.
The timing of the new proposal was awkward and its apparent genesis perhaps more so.
It began when Kerry was asked early Monday whether Assad could avoid a U.S. attack.
“Sure. He could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” Kerry responded with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”
As Kerry flew back to Washington to help lobby lawmakers, he received a midair call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said he had heard the secretary’s remarks and was about to make a public announcement.
The statement in Moscow came before Kerry landed.
“We are calling on the Syrian authorities [to] not only 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, adding, “We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moualem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer.”
Moualem, who was in Moscow meeting with Lavrov, followed with a statement that his government “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.”
Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies having a stockpile of the widely banned weapons, the idea of international control also quickly gained traction among diplomats and at least some senior Democrats whose support Obama seeks for a show of force.
If this works — and it’s still in the works — it could provide a non-lethal solution for everyone. Syria doesn’t get bombed, Congress is off the hook, diplomacy works, and everybody gets to save a little face.
Keep your fingers crossed, and maybe the speech tonight will be an announcement that everybody’s all going to get along and there’s no need to launch an attack.
Hope springs eternal.