Was a Syria-Russia Deal in the Works Before Kerry’s Gaffe?

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Sept. 9 2013 6:51 PM

Was a Syria-Russia Deal in the Works Before Kerry’s Gaffe?

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President Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin converse at Putin's residence outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo on July 7, 2009.

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with CNN tonight, President Obama called a Russian-proposed deal for Syria to give up its nuclear weapons a “potentially positive” development and while he expressed some skepticism, suggested it was a possible diplomatic breakthrough:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

"We have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now," the president said. "The fact that the U.S. administration and I have said we are serious about this, I think has prompted some interesting conversations."

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Obama also suggested that he had discussed such a proposal—or something similar to it—during the two leaders' brief meeting at last week’s G-20 summit. (Remember, plans for a full one-on-one between the two leaders were scuttled following the Edward Snowden affair.)

The conventional wisdom throughout the day has been that the Russian proposal came as a result of John Kerry’s off-the-cuff comment (“gaffe,” if you prefer) several hours earlier, in which he suggested that Assad giving up his weapons would lead to strike plans being put on hold.

However, a lot of folks are also giving a second look today to a Haaretz article from Sept. 1—little noticed at the time—in which veteran Israeli journalist Barak Ravid suggested a potential deal was in the works that sounds very much like the one being discussed today:

Both Obama and Putin have an interest in finding a diplomatic solution. Obama is not enthusiastic about attacking Syria. He did give a passionate speech about the need to hold the Assad regime accountable for the "assault on human dignity" and uphold the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. But he also made a point of saying there was no rush, that an attack "will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now."

From Putin's perspective, a diplomatic solution in which he is involved will bolster Russia's international standing and, more important, keep it from being humiliated. A massive U.S. attack on Assad would show the world that U.S. military technology is superior to that which Russia has supplied Assad, as well as further weakening Putin's Damascus ally and showing the world that Russia doesn't hold much sway.

How would a diplomatic solution look? Members of Israel's Foreign Ministry and various other foreign ministries in the West have begun to examine a scenario that seems a little unrealistic but is a genuine possibility. In this scenario, the United States and Russia would work together to write a UN Security Council resolution that would call on Assad to transfer any chemical weapons in his possession to Russian forces, along with UN inspectors. The chemical weapons would be removed from the country or destroyed on Syrian soil.

Given the way U.S. officials—including Kerry himself—have reacted since this morning’s comments were made, I have a hard time believing this was all part of some grand design. This certainly still looks like a policy being designed on the fly. But maybe there was more going on in St. Petersburg than we realized.   

Let’s see how many times the terms of this debate can change tomorrow!

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