Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis.
Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country.
"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," Kerry said. "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry's comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a "rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used."
By then, though, Kerry's ad lib had taken on a life of its own. A few hours after Kerry spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia would support putting Syria's chemical weapon storage sites under international control before "their subsequent destruction."
"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," Lavrov said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, appearing with Lavrov in Moscow, said his country welcomed the Russian proposal and was prepared to act on it "to avert American aggression against out people."
The Obama administration reacted much more cautiously, noting that Lavrov had provided no timetables or details about how his idea would work in practice, but White House officials didn't dismiss the Russian plan out of hand.
"We're going to take a hard look at this," Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told reporters at the White House. "We'll talk to the Russians about it."
By this evening, President Obama seemed receptive to the Russian proposal. In a series of interviews, he called it a "modestly positive development" and said he would hold off on a strike if Assad relinquished his chemical weapons.
The relatively warm U.S. response came in spite of the fact that the Russian proposal appeared to take the Obama administration by surprise. Lavrov spoke to Kerry by phone before his press conference in Moscow, but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she didn't know whether Lavrov had given his American counterpart any advance notice that he was about to float the idea of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
Still, it's far from clear how Lavrov's proposal would work in practice even if Assad signed on. Syria has dozens of chemical weapons facilities, many of them moveable, and the U.S. intelligence community would have a hard time knowing where more than a fraction of the sites were at any one time. That, in turn, would mean that Obama would have to effectively take Assad's word that he'd turned over all of his weapons -- an assurance the president would probably be unlikely to trust. The weapons themselves are difficult to handle, so physically moving and ultimately destroying them would be dangerous and time-consuming, adding another complication to the president's calculus.
Either way, the Russian proposal could give the White House a face-saving way to pull back from launching a military intervention into Syria that has almost no public or Congressional support. President Obama and his top aides have spent days arguing that failing to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own civilians would threaten U.S. national security by making American adversaries believe that they could develop and use weapons of mass destruction without repercussions. Obama himself will make the case for striking Syria in a television address Tuesday night.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waded into the Syria debate for the first time on Monday and expressed strong support for the administration's handling of the crisis. She said it would be an "important step" if Assad placed his chemical weapons under international control but said the Russian proposal only came about "in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government."
So far, though, the Obama administration's growing public relations push appears to be having little impact. A new CNN/ORC International poll found that 70 percent of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, and lawmakers from both parties say legislation giving Obama the power to use force against Assad doesn't currently have enough votes to make it through Congress.
The broad opposition has left the White House in a box. Obama has called Assad's use of chemical weapons a "red line" and said he wanted to carry out strikes designed to degrade Assad's military and dissuade him from using the chemical weapons again. In recent days, though, the president has been facing the very real prospect of watching a majority in the House -- and potentially in the Senate -- vote against even a small-scale American military intervention. That type of humiliating legislative defeat would decimate Obama's standing at home and abroad.
Now, the Russian proposal could give the White House an out. If Assad puts his weapons under international control, Obama could claim that his threats of a strike were what caused the Syrian dictator to blink. That would allow the administration to claim victory without having to fire a shot.
For now, Washington is basically in wait-and-see mode as momentum builds for a proposal that wasn't on anyone's radar screen even twelve hours ago. Influential Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement saying she would "welcome such a move." On Monday afternoon, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon effectively endorsed the Russian plan and called for Assad to place his chemical weapons "in a safe place" before they could be destroyed. The next move, whenever it happens, will be made in Damascus.
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