Launching a war in slow motion against a faraway country is never a smart thing to do, but it can have its advantages, too, in case the need arises to rein in the war on reflection before it gets under way. That seems to be happening in the case of the United States’ planned strike on Syria.
President Barack Obama gave sufficient hints at his press conference following the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that he was open to new ideas so that a military strike can be avoided.
If so, a new idea is struggling to be born. It appeared out of the blue on the London skies when on Monday the US Secretary of State John Kerry made what seemed a serious gaffe, apparently undercutting the Obama administration’s robust campaign right through the weekend to secure support for a military strike against Syria internationally.
In response to a smart query by a CBS reporter Margaret Brennan whether there could be any way an attack on Syria could be averted, Kerry took everyone by surprise: «Sure, if he [Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community, in the next week, turn it over. All of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously».
Within no time all hell broke loose. The most perplexing thing was that Kerry made the apparent overture to Damascus after completing a round of hectic parleying with the US’ European partners at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Vilnius where he succeeded in getting the EU’s top diplomats set aside reservations and sign in on Washington’s insistence on holding the Syrian government responsible for the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21. Germany, in fact, was a prize catch for Kerry, with Bonn squarely coming behind the US plan to strike Syria.
From Vilnius, Kerry proceeded to a crucial meeting with the Arab League foreign ministers in London following which he even disclosed that Saudi Arabia, in a major departure from its history of funding but never fighting wars – covert or overt – has agreed to take part in the upcoming one against Syria.
At any rate, Kerry’s gaffe caught Washington by surprise. It emerged in no time that he was out on a limb. The most curious part is that the ingenuous idea of the international community fastening Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is at least one year old when it was first mooted but there were no takers in the Obama administration.
The State Department spokesperson Marie Harf called her boss’s words «hypothetical» and «rhetorical» and poured cold water on the Russian words of welcome for the plan as promptly voiced from Moscow as «highly unlikely.» She clarified, «Secretary [Kerry] was not making a proposal».
The White House spokesman Jay Carney was in some visible despair at the daily press briefing and promised to take a «hard look» at the proposal, flagging at the same time that all this happened in the first instance only because of the credible threat of US military force against the Syrian regime held out by Obama and, therefore, he, Carney, advised the US Congressmen to go ahead and vote for the proposed resolution titled Authorization for the Use of Military Force regardless.
Interestingly, the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said following a meeting with Obama, «… if the [Syrian] regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction».
Clinton’s ingenuous logic runs as follows: Syria can go ahead and surrender its stockpiles within a week if it wants, which is logistically impossible anyway, but the US will nonetheless go ahead with the war plan.’ But she hit the nail on the head, namely, that the chemical weapons topic is only an alibi for the US military intervention and not the prime reason.
Enter Russia. Following up on the thin line of the wedge that Obama offered by disclosing he was open to new ideas, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seized Kerry’s loud thinking with the speed of light. He said,
«We [Russia] do not know if Syria agrees to this, but if placing the chemical weapons under international control helps avoid military strikes, then we will immediately get to work on this. We are calling on the Syrian authorities to reach agreement, not only on putting chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. We have already handed over this proposal to [Syrian foreign minister] Muallem, who is in Moscow, and hope for a quick and positive answer».
Muallam, of course, didn’t even bother to consult Damascus. He responded: «I have attentively listened to Mr. Lavrov’s statement. I declare that Syria, guided by its concern for the lives of its citizens and the security of the country, welcomes the Russian initiative».
Indeed, it helped also that the British Prime Minister David Cameron since commended the excellent Russian plan and called it «hugely welcome». More importantly, the United Nations Secretary General also climbed on board and revealed that he was "considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed" if it was proven that chemical weapons have been used.
To be sure, the fog began to thicken and all sorts of conspiracy theories were bound to arise, including that a secret Russian-American plan was afoot to help Obama to beat a decent retreat from war plan against Syria.
But the high probability is that Kerry made yet another Syria gaffe, and this time it took a life of its own, thanks to the alertness and imagination of Russian diplomacy. Things have indeed gone haywire in Washington. To use an idiom from the Russian game of chess, it’s check and checkmate for Obama. But then, he has a way with words and whether or how he takes advantage of Kerry’s gaffe and even turn it on its head to his political advantage to shelve the idea of a war for which he has no strong stomach anyway, will be the thing to watch.
In his speech to the nation today in Washington, Obama is expected to present his best case for a US military attack against Syria. If he genuinely feels disheartened by the overwhelming opposition to the idea of war in the American public opinion and the increasingly lackadaisical voices of the political class emanating from the Capitol Hill and, least of all, the bitter truth that the US is in stark isolation in the international community and is manifestly struggling to put together a «coalition of the willing,» this is the moment to grab.
It is not difficult to breathe life into Kerry’s gaffe. But then, equally, the wrath of the Saudi regime will also weigh in on Obama’s mind. It’s a close call. What can be said for certain for the present is that the Kerry gaffe on Syria has taken wings although it is unclear whether it will fly high or meet with the mythical fate of Icarus in ancient Greek mythology.
To be sure, the Kerry gaffe is being heard round the world and it seems to have survived the usual life cycle of the political gaffe, which is a single day.