A reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry if Syria could do anything to avoid getting attacked. Off the cuff, Kerry said, sure, get rid of their chemical weapons. Whereupon the Russian foreign minister seized on the idea, turning it into a proposal. Whereupon the Syrian foreign minister indicated that the country might be open to that. Now the rest of the world and much of Congress is rallying around that possibility. Do you think this proposal is a way out or a delaying tactic? A diplomatic breakthrough or a Russian ploy to keep Assad in power?
Meanwhile, President Obama will address the nation tonight at 9:00 ET, after a day packed with TV interviews, all in an effort to persuade Americans to persuade their Congressional representatives to let him attack Syria. I can’t watch the speech, but if you do, live blog it here. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.
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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was the first senior lawmaker to voice support for the Russian proposal.
“I think if the U.N. would accept the responsibility of maintaining these facilities, seeing that they’re secure, and that Syria would announce that it is giving up any chemical weapons programs or delivery system vehicles that may have been armed, then I think we’ve got something,” Feinstein said.
The Russian announcement was met with approval by international backers and critics of a U.S. strike. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has said a U.S. attack on Syria would be illegal without U.N. approval, signaled support, as did British Prime Minister David Cameron.
French Foreign Minister Laurant Fabius, whose government had said it would join an American attack and who two days ago stood at Kerry’s side in Paris to pledge an all-out effort to build public support, said it was worth testing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been wary of a strike, welcomed the idea.
Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said the proposal came only because Assad feels the threat of military force and that Congress should continue considering Obama’s request for legislative backing. But the two said the proposal should be given a chance — and a test of its sincerity — by being committed to writing in a U.N. Security Council resolution.
“We should not trust, and we must verify,” the pair said in a joint statement.
A senior State Department official said Kerry warned Lavrov that the United States was “not going to play games.”
Current and former Obama administration officials scrambled Monday to say the proposal should not derail plans for a punitive strike. They suggested it was a delaying tactic after more than two years of diplomatic efforts with Syria and its ally Russia, albeit one spurred by the prospect that a U.S. military attack is imminent.