Secretary of State John Kerry may have provided a creative third way for how the U.S. will handle Syria, and it’s not at all clear that he meant to. For weeks, the position of the Obama Administration has been that the U.S. should bomb Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in a huge attack that killed about 1,400 people. Kerry has led the charge for a Syria strike, making the case for it in multiple speeches. Americans, by about a 2-1 margin, oppose any U.S. intervention in Syria, due to fears of mission creep, retaliation and that bombs wouldn’t really solve anything. Obama faces tough odds in getting the votes he needs in the Senate and House to approve a strike on Syria.
In the midst of this seemingly no-win situation, Kerry made this apparently spontaneous remark:
“Sure, [Assad] 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.” Kerry added that this has no chance of happening: “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
Just to reinforce that Kerry was, perhaps irresponsibly, throwing out random conjectures, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki brushed away any real meaning behind Kerry’s statement:
“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.”
So, Kerry makes a random comment about Syria giving up its chemical weapons, Psaki clarifies that the point of his statement was that Assad would never actually do that, and then Russia, Syria’s most prominent ally, says, “Hey Syria, would you actually do that?”
Or, in the more articulate words of Russia’s foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov:
“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus….And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported a U.S. strike on Syria, said that Assad handing over and destroying all of his chemical weapons would be “hugely welcome.”
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also loved the idea, and said that he might propose a resolution to the U.N. Security Counsel.
Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moualem agreed that this was a great idea:
"I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people."
So, Syria avoids American air strikes, Syria gives up its chemical weapons, the Syrian rebels presumably don’t have to fear any more chemical attacks, and America gets to claim its might pressured Syria into giving up its weapons. It’s not a done deal, but we may have stumbled on a win-win in a situation that looked very much like a lose-lose.
And John Kerry, a man known for his stumbles, may have just stumbled into the greatest achievement in his career.