Russia's new Syria plan could turn 'quagmire into an easy win'

Russia has seized on an offhand comment by US Secretary of State John Kerry and is proposing a plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Syria is onboard, but the US is skeptical.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
White House press secretary Jay Carney speaks during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday The White House is 'highly skeptical' of the Russian proposal to allow international inspectors into Syria to examine that country's chemical weapons stockpile, Mr. Carney said.

In a surprising turnabout on Monday, Syria welcomed a Russian plan to turn its chemical weapons over to the international community for destruction. The US said it would take a hard look at the idea, first floated by Secretary of State John Kerry in an offhand comment.

The swift moves raised the possibility that the Syria crisis could be resolved via diplomacy. But the international situation was fluid and it remained possible the nascent plan could fall apart.

The US would look at the proposal with “serious skepticism,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, because Syria had consistently refused to destroy its chemical weapons in the past.

But if the idea comes together it might allow the US to claim a more thorough destruction of Syria's weapons of mass destruction than would be otherwise possible. It would also lessen the stakes for upcoming congressional votes on whether to authorize a Syria attack. Syria, for its part, might avoid any chance of President Obama ordering a strike on Syrian infrastructure with US ordnance.

“If this offer is actually on the table, the US should take it – turns a quagmire into an easy win,” tweeted Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The chain of events began early in London early Monday when Secretary Kerry mentioned to reporters that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid the possibility of US strikes by surrendering “every single bit” of his chemical weapon arsenal to the international community within days. Kerry added that he did not believe Assad would do that or, indeed, that such a turnover was even possible.

Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov picked up the idea, and said publicly that Russia would push its ally Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, and that Moscow would help the destruction effort.

Things moved quickly from there. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid-al-Moallem “embraced the proposal,” according to an Associated Press report. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he thought it was a good idea.

“I’m considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed,” said the UN chief.

US officials remain suspicious that Mr. Assad may be stalling for time. The Syrian government has not previously admitted to the possession of large chemical weapons stocks. Locating, securing, and moving such dangerous weapons in the midst of a country fighting a ferocious civil war would be a very difficult task. If Assad wanted to hide some chemical stocks, he probably could. International weapons inspections are far from foolproof.

“Everything that Assad has done over the past two years and before has been to refuse to put his chemical weapons under international control. He hasn’t declared them. We’ve repeatedly called on him to do so. And he’s ignored prohibitions against them,” said State Department spokesman Harf.

But Harf added that the US would take a “hard look” at the Russian proposal. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the move could be “an important step” in protecting Syrian civilians from chemical weapons attacks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Community, was among a number of lawmakers who said they thought the whole thing might be a good idea.

“I would welcome such a move,” said Senator Feinstein.

Some experts outside government judge the Russian proposal a win-win.

It would achieve the same result as military action, without any fatalities or risk, writes Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

As part of any agreement, the US should insist on Syria making a political commitment to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. The UN Security Council should then follow with a resolution codifying any Syrian decision, according to Mr. Wolfsthal.

That fact that it is the threat of force which pushed Syria to welcome the proposal “should also lead all members of Congress leaning against authorizing the use of force to think again about such a vote,” writes Wolfsthal.

But some remained skeptical that the plan would come together, given all the potential hazards and conflicts involved.

“I find it somewhat hard to believe that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is interested in helping the US out of the jam it’s in,” tweeted Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a former Middle East correspondent for the New Yorker.

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