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 the morning of last Monday, the world was heading towards 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 Moualem, and the Senate vote on Obama’s planned strikes on Syria was postponed. If Syria keeps its word, the vote may never be held. What a difference a day makes. The sequence of events, so far as can be made out, was as follows. At the Moscow G20 summit, Obama and the 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. Which one isn’t clear, but both men had reason to want such a thing, for the alternative was that Obama would lead the United States of America 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 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, September 9, 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.”
Off the boil
Then Kerry got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister 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. There is a great deal of suspicion in Washington that this is merely a delaying tactic. It will also be hard to send international troops in to secure Syria’s chemical weapons unless there is a ceasefire in the civil war now raging all over the country.
But the American military will be pleased, because it was really unhappy about the job that Obama was giving it, 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.