Why a Syria Strike Could Be Avoided After All

The Obama administration’s plan to launch airstrikes in Syria took a farcical turn this morning when a spontaneous, offhand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry inadvertently snowballed into a serious diplomatic proposal that could wind up preventing U.S. military action in the country. The question now is, will military intervention in Syria be prevented after all?

Earlier today, Kerry was asked by a London reporter if there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could to do avoid a military strike by the United States.

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” said Kerry, seemingly off the top of his head. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it]. But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."

It was initially reported as a gaffe, and the White House started to walk it back — but then something strange happened. Russia, which opposes a U.S. strike and has stood by Syria throughout its civil war, leapt at the idea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed it to the Syrian government, which replied almost immediately that it “welcomed” the proposal. Soon enough, Kerry announced that if Syria relinquished its chemical weapons within a week, America would call off the strike (which, it’s important to note, has yet to pass Congress and faces pretty stark odds in the House of Representatives).

But will the plan — which was conceived, formulated and proposed in a matter of hours with seemingly zero forethought — succeed? That depends on whether Russia is bluffing or not, and how you define “succeed.”

“The best-case scenario is that Russia’s plan is legitimate, in which case they are positioned better than anyone else in the world to compel Assad to give up his chemical weapons to international control,” writes Max Fisher at the Washington Post. “Obama has consistently argued that strikes would be to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons; what better way to do that than by pulling those weapons off of the battlefield entirely?”

It would be a big win for Obama. He could call off the airstrikes (which are massively unpopular in the U.S.) and avoid the uphill climb to get them approved in Congress. He could also take credit for removing chemical weapons from the hands of a brutal dictator, generally a popular move.

"If we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I'm all for it," Obama said in an interview Monday with PBS. “But we’re going to have to see specifics.”

More practically speaking, this would also be a win for every day Syrians, who would presumably no longer have to live in fear of chemical weapon attacks striking their communities.

But what if Russia is bluffing, and Lavrov’s offer wasn’t sincere? It could be the case that Russia simply wants to force the U.S. into another round of lengthy negotiations, which would presumably force America to withhold from launching a strike.

“It could take months to negotiate over whether Assad would accept the plan, the process of surrendering the chemical weapons, where they’d go and so on,” says Fisher. “If Russia does just want to delay, it will have many opportunities to do so along the way, and in the meantime any momentum within Washington for action will be lost.”

Fisher argues that this tactic would be “signature Lavrov,” and that may be so. However, as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, there’s also reason to doubt that Russia’s main goal is to delay.

“At the moment our tally shows that 232 members of the House are on the record as planning to vote ‘no’ - in other words, well over a majority,” Marshall writes. “47 are yes and 153 undecided. (If Obama can just get 150% of the undecided to go his way he’s golden.) So it’s not clear to me that there is anything to delay.”

Assuming for the moment that Russia is being sincere, and assuming Assad complies and surrenders his arsenal, what then? Well, a murderous dictator no longer has chemical weapons, so that’s a plus. The problem is that if the Assad regime gives up the weapons, and the U.S. calls off a military strike, it would put everybody back to where they were a month ago. The U.S. would be left denounce the Syrian regime, Russia would be left defending it, and Syria would continue to collapse into a civil war filled with death and destruction.

“[I]f Russia and Syria do go through with this plan, it would signal that both believe Assad can still win without chemical weapons. They would probably be correct,” says Fisher. “And it would significantly reduce the odds of any U.S. action against Assad, although it’s debatable whether that would be a good or bad thing for Syria.”

We’re left with a situation, then, where the best-case scenario involves the elimination of chemical weapons from the hands of a dictator — but the perpetuation of a brutal civil war that’s already taken 110,000 lives. That’s obviously better than a world where Assad continues to wield chemical weapons capabilities, but it’s far from a full-fledged resolution to Syria’s war.