Seemingly offhand remarks by American Secretary of State John Kerry about a potential scenario for avoiding a series of limited US strikes against Syria offer many involved parties a potential way out of an uncomfortable standoff. He suggested that if the Syrian regime were to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile entirely to international control, American military action might become unnecessary. Mr. Kerry appeared to be contextualizing the suggestion in the context of its implausibility, if not impossibility. But, with blinding speed, the idea has developed into a potential diplomatic solution to the present standoff.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seized on the comments, turning them into a vague Russian proposal. This, in turn, was endorsed by China and many others. And, most significantly, it was tentatively embraced by US President Barack Obama last night, although both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have expressed great skepticism about the Syrian government’s readiness, willingness, and ability to comply with such terms.
These doubts are extremely well-founded. The Damascus dictatorship is nothing if not duplicitous.
Though it has yet to issue any formal response to the idea, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is likely to also seize on the concept as a method of buying time and avoiding an American strike.
But the plausibility that any such plan could be effectively crafted and implemented seems somewhat far-fetched. It would involve levels of international presence and verification – in the context of a chaotic, fluid, and rapidly-evolving civil war – and cooperation by a Syrian regime that seems to belong much more to the world of theory than anything practicable.
Yet it is not difficult to see the appeal such an idea could hold for all of these parties.
The Obama administration was never enthusiastic about a deep American involvement in Syria. Indeed, the Obama “red line” was always a manifestation of that. Mr. Obama set a standard for American engagement – no use of chemical weapons – that would have been easy to avoid by a less vicious regime. But apparently someone senior in the Syrian government panicked and ordered a major use of chemical weapons against hundreds of defenseless civilians, thereby forcing Mr. Obama’s hand.
With evident reluctance but determination, the Obama administration committed itself to limited military intervention to restore deterrence on chemical weapons use. Finding scant domestic and international support for such an action, the administration sought the approval of Congress. A resolution authorizing use of force seems likely to pass in the Senate, but still faces an uphill battle in the House of Representatives, and is deeply unpopular with a large percentage of Americans who fear another Middle East quagmire.
The new diplomatic initiative, however implausible in practice, offers all the parties an opportunity to buy some welcome time.
It gives Russia the opportunity to pose as a mediator and problem-solver in Syria, when in reality it bears the heaviest responsibility for the carnage in Syria by supporting the regime at every level, and blocking all international efforts to restrain the Syrian government and conflict. It gives Mr. Assad another opportunity to exercise his considerable skill at obfuscation, delay, and doubledealing at multilateral forums like the United Nations.
And it gives the Obama administration time to build more domestic and international support for any eventual military action. They will insist the United States would welcome and support any initiative that provides a diplomatic solution for the chemical weapons conundrum that has led the administration to feel bound to act. It can underscore the idea that it explored and exhausted all diplomatic possibilities before taking action, thereby adding considerable legitimacy to the perception of any future strikes as an unavoidable method of last resort.
But even if such an agreement were reached on paper – which seems difficult to imagine given the complexities involved – actually implementing it effectively would be all-but-impossible.
So the Obama administration is likely to find itself back at square one, confronting a situation in which its red line has been brazenly crossed by a murderous dictatorship that appears ready to do so again unless its impunity is firmly repudiated.
Meanwhile, the Syrian people continue to pay the real price on the ground.
For the war that is wracking their country to end, the strategic equation on the ground needs to be fundamentally changed. Limited US military action may still prove a major step in that direction.
Whether and when the United States acts directly against the Syrian regime it is imperative that it and its allies greatly increase support to non-extremist rebel groups. It is such support, after all, far more than limited military strikes, that can affect the nature and the outcome of the conflict and help to give Syrians a viable way out of their appalling, and regionally destabilizing, national nightmare.