The Syrian crisis has taken another curious turn. Yesterday, before President Obama made his case to the public for some sort of military strike against the regime of Bashar Assad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that his nation would push the Syrian government to put its chemical weapons cache under international control. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed his nation agrees with the idea. “Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” he said.
The surprise development came within hours of an ambiguous ultimatum issued by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Assad had one week to turn over all of his chemical weapons or face a military attack. Kerry then said it was unlikely Assad would do so. Sensing a potential problem, the State Department quickly characterized Kerry's comments as a "rhetorical argument," not an actual offer. What Kerry really meant, according to Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, "was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons."
Nonetheless, Lavrov promised that Moscow would attempt to convince Syria to do exactly that. "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said. “We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” he added.
Lavrov has already handed the proposal to Moallem. In return he hopes to get a "quick, and, hopefully, positive answer."
The devil remains in the details. As of now, it remains unclear how such a procedure would be implemented, or whether placing such weapons under international control would occur inside Syria, or require the weapons to be transferred to another country such as Turkey or Russia.
Lavrov's statement comes after media reports alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin had sought some kind of negotiated settlement along these lines after discussing Syria with President Barack Obama during the group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last week. Yet Lavrov was quick to note that Putin was not attempting to broker a deal "behind the back of the Syrian people." Moreover, both Syria and Russia have dismissed the accuracy of American intelligence, insisting that the chemical attack was perpetrated by rebels trying to drag America into Syria's civil war.
Following their discussion, Lavrov and Moallem said U.N. weapons inspectors should complete their investigation regarding that chemical attack and present its findings to the U.N. Security Council. Moallem further insisted that his nation is ready to host the inspectors and ready to use every opportunity available to convince the United States that it didn't perpetrate the chemical attack that killed 1400 people on August 21, according to U.S. intelligence. Syria, Moallem promised, was ready for “full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression.”
The plan was welcomed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who contended it could help overcome the “embarrassing paralysis” of the world body. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been prevented by the British Parliament from pursuing military action against Syria, was also on board, calling the ostensible deal a "big step forward." Yet Cameron also remained wary, warning that “we have to be careful, though, to make sure this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something else rather than the problem on the table.”
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who oppose the Obama administration's military option, put together a resolution giving Syria 45 days to abide by the international laws banning the use of chemical weapons and take "concrete steps" to comply. Heitkamp released a written statement noting that this would give Assad the opportunity to "begin the process of turning over its chemical weapons." "If, after 45 days, the Assad regime mistakes our deliberate and careful democratic process for lack of will and immunity, it does so at its own peril," she added.
The duo has been promised a vote on their proposal.
In the meantime, senior White House and the State Department officials said they would welcome such a development, though they remained highly skeptical regarding Syria's intentions. In a blitz of interviews Monday President Obama seemed to react positively to the prospect of negotiating with Syria. Deputy U.S. national security advisor Tony Blinken said the administration would "welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons," but that their "track record to date, doesn't give you a lot of confidence." State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf warned Syria against "another stalling tactic" further noting that the Russians "for months and years have stood up for the Syrian regime at the UN and in the international community." Deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes also insisted Washington would not "take the pressure" off Assad's regime, contending that the threat of military force was the impetus behind the Russian initiative.
That is highly unlikely. What is more likely is that Vladimir Putin heard John Kerry draw another red line with an off-the-cuff offer attached to it and decided to take advantage of Kerry's admission. Kerry further revealed the trepidation of the White House with his ridiculous statement about how the war would be prosecuted using an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." If that sounds familiar, it's because Barack Obama promised that America's military involvement in the Libyan civil war would "last days, not weeks." In fact that war lasted nearly seven months beginning in March 2011 and ending in late October.
Furthermore, once Putin led the way, it was almost a no-brainer that the Democratically-controlled Senate, faced with a choice of supporting the president (and alienating a substantial majority of the American public in the process) or voting against the use of force and turning Obama into a de facto lame duck with three years left in his term, would likely welcome a "third way" that essentially kicks the can down the road. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for instance, said that the Russian plan "would be a great step forward." Regardless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will meet with the president today, with Obama expected to continue selling the military option. But there is little doubt his case has been weakened by his Secretary of State, his chief international political rival, and Syria's claim that it is amenable to the Russian offer.
The long-term effects of this gambit may also be troubling. Obama's approach to Syria has been overtly amateurish. The opening paragraph of a Politico column inadvertently reveals the latest manifestation. "The White House insisted Monday that it was legally able to launch a strike on Syria without congressional approval even as it intensified its courting of lawmakers to support military action," it stated.
In other words, the president is threatening Congress and courting it at the same time.
By contrast, Vladimir Putin, who previously demonstrated his contempt for the president by granting Edward Snowden asylum, has taken control of the crisis in such a way that, at the very least, he has likely bought even more time for his Syrian ally to make preparation for any conflict with the U.S., even as he appears statesmanlike in the process. Putin's ability to easily outmaneuver Obama will not be lost on other Middle East leaders.
Or the American public it seems. A national poll released late yesterday afternoon revealed Obama's approval rating on foreign policy has hit an all-time low. Only 40 percent of Americans back his overall foreign policy and only three-in-ten approve of his approach to Syria, and whopping 63 percent of Americans give him a thumbs down.
Last night, the president granted interviews to six networks to make his case regarding the use of force in Syria. The same president who made the case that the Benghazi attack was all about a video, and who promised "to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people." Tomorrow will mark the one year anniversary of that attack, and no one has been brought to justice. Perhaps Obama may yet learn that once one has squandered one’s credibility, it is impossible to regain it.
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