The Obama administration's clumsy campaign to gather support for bombing Syria got even clumsier today, and, against all odds, this cascade of clumsiness actually started working in its favor. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked at a London news conference what President Assad could do to avoid a military strike, Kerry made an off-the-cuff suggestion that Assad could "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week." He immediately added, "But he isn’t about to do it."
Except maybe he is. Russia's foreign minister quickly expressed support for a plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control, and Syria's foreign minister said it "welcomes Russia's initiative." The only one who didn't seem to be onboard was ... Kerry:
A State Dept official pushed back hard on the idea of a proposal that #Syria hand over its CW to avoid a strike.— Nicole Gaouette (@nicolegaouette) September 9, 2013
Official also sed White House thought about issuing an ultimatum to the Assad regime last week: hand over CW or we strike. Idea got scrapped— Nicole Gaouette (@nicolegaouette) September 9, 2013
The Obama administration's resistance to his own half-assed proposal is understandable. Assad is not the most trustworthy fellow. How would this work? How could Assad's full cooperation be guaranteed?
The proposal would also fail to achieve one of the main goals Obama hoped to accomplish by bombing Syria: upholding international norms against using chemical weapons by exacting a penalty for such actions. The message of the Kerry/Russia deal would be that any dictator out there who massacres his own citizens with chemical weapons would, at worst, be asked to voluntarily give up his weapons. It's hard to see that precedent serving as much of a deterrent to Iran or other rogue states.
At the same time, getting Assad to give up his chemical weapons would still go a long way toward accomplishing another goal of Obama's — degrading Assad's ability to kill civilians, and attack America's allies, with chemical weapons. Resistance from Congress is making military strikes increasingly unlikely anyway; this would surely be far preferable to doing nothing at all.
It's not clear whether this proposal has any legs yet, but it's just possible that John Kerry managed to bumble and stumble his way into some kind of face-saving solution to the Syria dilemma.