Syria: An unexpected rabbit out of political hat

When someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it’s natural to be suspicious.

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.

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 U.S. President Barack 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.

The sequence of events was as follows: At the Moscow G20 summit last week, Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had a one-to-one chat 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.

Then on Monday 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. “But he isn’t about to.”

Kerry then got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying he was about to announce Russia would ask Syria to put all its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control and then destroy them.

The Syrian foreign minister promptly declared 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 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 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 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 much suspicion in Washington this is merely a delaying tactic to stall an American attack and sap 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 40 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 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 whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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