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Analysis: Why did a seemingly offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry become the back-from-the-brink solution for Syria? A look at who wants what in this increasingly bizarre standoff.
As diplomatic crises go, this one has had more twists and turns than a Wild Mouse.
First there was the endless hand wringing over red lines turning pink and America losing its credibility in the world. When it seemed inevitable that US bombs would begin to fall on Syria within days or even hours, President Barack Obama suddenly announced that he was seeking congressional approval for a strike.
Now, that plan's on pause and America's top diplomat is set to meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss a whole different tack to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces from unleashing chemical weapons on civilians.
That's thanks to this week's surprise development: Secretary of State John Kerry, in an apparently offhand answer to a reporter’s question, said Assad could avert a US strike if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week."
Kerry did not oversell it. “But [Assad] isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously,” he said.
Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov floated a proposal to defuse the Syrian crisis based on Kerry’s suggestion, and almost everyone was in love with it.
It’s not hard to see why: For many of the main actors in this drama, the Russian-Kerry proposal offers a life preserver in a very stormy sea.
President Barack Obama would be a big winner if this proposal grows legs. The American president is in an increasingly desperate struggle with Congress and his public over Syria. Many argue that Obama has failed to make the case for an attack: He has not made the public understand what can be gained, and why it is in America’s interests to intervene in Syria now.
Last weekend Obama announced he was seeking congressional approval for a strike, but vote counts show that he has an extremely slim chance of getting a nod from the House.
If Congress rejects his bid for authorization to use military force, he would have to decide whether to lose credibility on the world stage or proceed anyway, an action that some — his own vice president, in fact — have called an impeachable offense.
A diplomatic solution could be the answer to a prayer.
In the course of his interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, one of six he gave on Monday to try and lobby the public, Obama went from taking Russia’s proposal with a “grain of salt” to acknowledging it as a “potentially positive development” to hailing it as a “significant breakthrough.”
In fact, he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace, it was his idea.
“Uh, this is something that is not new. I've been discussing this with, uh, President Putin for some time now,” Obama said.
Russia is doubtless enjoying its unusual position as Washington’s savior. In adopting and formalizing Kerry’s casual proposal, Russia asserts its position as a world leader, protects its ally Syria, and avoids what could have been a nasty showdown at the United Nations.
The move also, potentially, secures Syria’s chemical weapons and ensures that Islamic militants in Russia’s extended backyard do not gain access to the deadly chemical weapons stockpiles.
Moscow has the clout to pressure Assad into at least considering the proposal. It can also marshal support from China, the other Security Council member that had been blocking a resolution on Syria.
By Monday night, China and Iran had signaled their support for Syria handing over its chemical weapons to international inspectors.
“China always believes that a political settlement is the only realistic way to solve the Syrian issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “We should insist on this direction without wavering.”
In Tehran, newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said Iran “welcomes Moscow’s initiative at this stage to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Islamic Republic of Iran sees this initiative as a way to halt militarization in the region.”
Bashar al-Assad may or may not be on board with the proposal; it’s hard to know, since he apparently only talks to Charlie Rose. In his interview Sunday with the PBS television host, Assad would neither confirm nor deny that his regime possesses chemical weapons.
But his prime minister, Wael al-Halki, told Syrian state television that the government backed Russia’s