When someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it’s natural to be suspicious. Magicians are professionals in deceit – and so are diplomats. But sometimes the rabbit is real.
On Monday morning, the world was heading into the biggest crisis in years: a looming American attack on Syria, a Russian response that could set off the first major confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War, and the possible spread of the fighting from Syria to neighbouring countries. Or alternatively, a Congressional rejection of President Barack Obama’s plans that would have left him a lame duck for the next three years.
By Tuesday morning all that had changed. A Russian proposal for Syria to get rid of all its chemical weapons was promptly accepted by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and the Senate vote on Obama’s planned strikes on Syria was postponed, probably for weeks. If Syria keeps its word, the vote may never be held. What a difference a day makes.
Now for the cavils. Nothing has been signed. Nothing has even been written up for signature. Maybe Syria is just playing for time. Perhaps Obama will want to pursue the Syrian regime legally for the poison gas attacks that he claims it has already carried out (though he sounded very relieved on hearing the news and didn’t mention any “red lines”).
The sequence of events, so far as can be made out, was as follows. At the Moscow G20 summit last week, Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had a one-to-one chat on the side at which one of them broached the possibility of persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons entirely. Which one isn’t clear, and the idea was not pursued by either of them.
Yet both men had reason to want such a thing, for the alternative was that Obama would lead the United States into another Middle Eastern war, not exactly what he was elected for – or that he would not get Congressional approval to do so and end up completely discredited. Putin would feel obliged to respond to a US attack on his Syrian ally, but that could end up with Russian missiles shooting down American planes.
There was then silence until Monday, when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, gave an off-the-cuff reply in London to a question about whether Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American attack. “Sure. He could turn over every bit of his (chemical) weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” said Kerry with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”
Then Kerry got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying that he was about to announce that Russia would ask Syria to put all its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and finally destroy them all.
The Syrian foreign minister happened to be in Moscow, so within an hour he declared that Assad’s regime “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.” By Monday evening Obama was saying that the Russian plan “could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” and the pot was off the boil.
The whole thing, therefore, was made up on the fly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work, but it is a proposal that comes without any of the usual preparation that precedes a major diplomatic initiative. The reason we don’t know the details is that there aren’t any. What we do know is that everybody – Obama, Putin and Assad – is clearly desperate to avoid going to war, and that gives us reason to hope.
Two things that have to happen fast, if this rabbit is really going to run. First, Syria has to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention right away. That could be done within a week, and it would legally commit it to getting rid of all its chemical weapons and the factories that make them.
Secondly, the United Nations Security Council has to pass a resolution demanding that Syria reveal the size and location of its entire stock of chemical weapons and place them under international control. France has already put such a resolution on the Security Council’s agenda; the test will be whether Russia vetoes it. It probably won’t.
There is a great deal of suspicion in Washington that this is merely a delaying tactic meant to stall an American attack and sap the already weak popular support in the United States for military action. Moreover, it will be hard to send international troops in to secure Syria’s chemical weapons (at least forty storage sites, plus some weapons in the hands of military units) unless there is a ceasefire in the civil war now raging all over the country.
But the American military will be pleased, because they were really unhappy about the job that Obama was giving them, and Obama himself looks like a man who has been granted a new lease of life. There will be time to try to make this work.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London