The Syrian crisis took a surprising twist Monday, after Russia proposed putting President Bashar al-Assad's supply of chemical weapons under international control. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov put forth the proposal yesterday, saying that Syria could avoid a threatened US military strike by ceding control of its stockpiles and agreeing to eventually destroy its cache of chemical weapons.
The offer drew immediate support from officials in Syria, as well as allies China and Iran. President Barack Obama tentatively supported the proposal in a televised interview with CNN, calling it a "potentially positive development," though he noted that any agreement must be "enforceable and serious." In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D - NV) said he would delay an initial vote on authorizing a limited military strike against Syria; the Senate was scheduled to vote on a resolution Wednesday, but that will now be delayed until at least next week, according to the New York Times.
"We have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now."
"We have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now," Obama told CNN, describing the offer as a potentially significant "breakthrough". "The fact that the US administration and I have said we are serious about this, I think, has prompted some interesting conversations." The White House has been urging Congress to authorize a limited military operation against the Assad regime, in response to an August 21st chemical attack that left more than 1,400 people dead outside Damascus. The US is confident that Assad ordered the attack, though the Syrian leader continues to blame the rebel groups seeking to overthrow him.
Lavrov's proposal came just hours after Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in London that Assad could avoid a strike by handing over his arsenal of poison gas. The State Department was quick to point out that the comments were rhetorical, and Kerry himself said he had little confidence that Assad would agree to the proposal. Many have speculated that Russia's offer was the direct result of Kerry's statements Monday, though some have suggested that a compromise may have been in the works at this month's G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg. Obama told CNN yesterday that he discussed Syria's weapon supply and the specter of US intervention with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the meeting last week.
"useless procrastination that will only result in more deaths."
Many remain skeptical of Russia's proposal, with some arguing that it could be little more than a ploy to buy time. "The proposal of Lavrov is a political maneuver and is part of useless procrastination that will only result in more deaths and destruction for the Syrian people," Syria's leading opposition group said in a statement to AFP.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem embraced the Russian proposal in Moscow yesterday, though it remains unclear whether Assad himself will support it. Officials in the US have remained circumspect about the prospects for a diplomatic resolution. "Unfortunately, the [Assad regime's] track record to date does not inspire a lot of confidence," Tony Blinken, US deputy national security adviser, told the Guardian.
Others suspect that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be using the proposal to gain the upper hand in ongoing — and recently tense — negotiations with Barack Obama, whose push for intervention in Syria may now face even stiffer opposition.
"There are hints that this was the result of some backchannel discussions at the G20 and not just a Kerry gaffe," Joshua Foust, a foreign policy journalist and former senior intelligence analyst for the US miltiary, said in an email to The Verge. "But the evolution of the messaging is worrying. Sounds like Russia seized on an opportunity to step in and be the savior, and while the US needs to go along with it, I think Obama got encircled in a pretty embarrassing way."
President Obama is scheduled to deliver a nationally televised address on Syria at 9PM ET tonight.
Update 1: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem has confirmed that the Assad regime has agreed to Russia's proposal to cede control of its chemical weapons to international forces and to eventually destroy them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country is currently working with Assad to prepare a concrete plan, which will be finalized in cooperation with the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Al-Moallem tells the Associated Press that Syria agreed to the proposal in order to "uproot US aggression."
Update 2: The Associated Press is reporting that President Obama has agreed to discuss Russia's proposal at the UN Security Council. In a statement provided to the Huffington Post, a White House official said Obama arrived at the decision after consulting with French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"They agreed to work closely together, and in consultation with Russia and China, to explore seriously the viability of the Russian proposal to put all Syrian chemical weapons and related materials fully under international control in order to ensure their verifiable and enforceable destruction," the statement reads. "These efforts will begin today at the United Nations, and will include a discussion on elements of a potential UN Security Council Resolution."