It's amazing what a few off-the-cuff remarks can do in the world of international diplomacy.
Asked at a news conference if there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to prevent a U.S. strike, Secretary of State John Kerry responded, "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." He quickly added, "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
But in a surprise twist, Sergey Lavrov — foreign minister of Syria's key ally, Russia — said he thought that was a good idea, and urged Syria to put its stockpile under international control.
Then came the real curveball. Lavrov's Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, said that Assad's regime welcomed Russia's initiative, because it cares "about the lives of our people and security of our country."
Then support for the plan started pouring in from all sides, including from the United Nations and Great Britain. A White House spokesperson even said the Obama administration would take a "hard look" at Russia's proposal, which would include the eventual destruction of Assad's weapons.
Kerry's comments came at a crucial moment in the debate over what to do about Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, which the White House blames for more than 1,400 deaths in a single attack last month. President Obama plans to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday to present his case for launching limited air strikes against Syria, while wary Republicans and anti-war Democrats muster strong opposition ahead of looming votes in Congress on authorizing the operation.
Foreign observers disagreed on how seriously to take Russia's proposal. British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that it would be a "big step forward" if Russia and Syria followed through, adding that such a move would be "hugely welcome."
Plenty of people, however, dismissed the move as a ruse to bolster U.S. critics who say Obama is rushing into an unnecessary conflict. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has advocated a strike, said that Russia's proposal is an "important step," but that "this cannot be another excuse for delay."
Only time will tell whether this is a "game changer or a shrewd bluff," says Max Fisher at The Washington Post.
This certainly looks like a potential game-changer for the Syria crisis. But whether for the better or the worse depends on whether Russia really wants Assad to give up his weapons or is just bluffing. Either way, the announcement is a telling moment in the international stand-off over possible U.S. strikes on Syria — and a sign that the threat of strikes might actually be working better than we think. [Washington Post]
Indeed, the celerity with which the Assad regime has leapt at the chance to turn over its deadliest weapons suggests it is not looking forward to an impending strike, despite all Assad's bluster about retaliation. That would bolster the administration's claim that a modest, limited strike (or even an "unbelievably small" one, as Kerry put it earlier to much mockery) would deter Assad from engaging in further chemical attacks, a point that Obama administration officials could very well stress in the coming days.