Whether intended or inadvertent, Secretary of State John Kerry's comments in London outlining a way for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to possibly avoid a U.S. military strike threw a diplomatic lifeline to Russia's efforts to position itself as the "voice of reason" on the Syria crisis.
At the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg at the end of last week, it was clear that most of the leaders of the world's most powerful and influential nations were not prepared to sign up either to the proposition that it was too early to determine whether or not chemical agents had been used in the fighting in a Damascus suburb on August 21st or to Russia's contention that the anti-Assad opposition was the more likely suspect in any chemical attack. With the U.S. narrative, once again echoed by UN ambassador Samantha Power, that Moscow was acting to obstruct action, the Russian government's position that it was too early to make any determinations that might lead to sanctions (including that of military force) against the government in Damascus might not have been tenable.
Putin was saved from repeating the diplomatic isolation he experienced at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland during the summer by several factors. The first was that a number of the rising powers of the global south continue to be very suspicious of U.S. attempts to erode state sovereignty and two leaders in particular, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, arrived at the summit with particular bones to pick with Washington about reported spying on their communications by the National Security Agency. WIth the exception of Turkey and Saudi Arabia—both of whom have very specific interests in the outcome of the Syria conflict, none of the "new" powers of the G-20 signed on to the statement assigning blame for the attack to Assad and calling for a response—although even this communique fell short of endorsing a U.S. military operation occurring outside the frame of the United Nations. Second, both the United Nations and the European Union endorsed calls for patience and for the report of UN inspectors to be completed and submitted for review, before any action be taken.
But it was clear that many governments represented at the G-20 conclave—both in the developing world as well as in Europe—were uncomfortable caught between the poles of Putin's full-throated defense of state sovereignty if it seemed to provide cover for the use of chemical weapons, but were equally put off by President Barack Obama's insistence that the U.S. had the right to take action against Syria without the sanction of the United Nations, putting Washington in the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Distrust of past U.S. intelligence claims—augmented by the apparent leak of what was described as German intelligence intercepts showing that senior levels of the Assad government had been refusing the requests of lower-ranking officers to use chemical weapons (although the German BND also intercepted a call between a Syrian official and a senior Hezbollah figure which suggested Assad may have sanctioned their use)—also reinforced a call for moving cautiously. Now, however, they have a third way: one that promises to deal with the threat of chemical weapons but does not involve regime change.
Kerry's comments that a Syria which turned over its chemical stockpiles to international supervision might lead to a reassessment of military action was immediately picked up by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who broached the subject with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem who was in Moscow for talks. Lavrov declared, "We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons." He asked for UN experts to return to Syria and for exploration of how chemical weapons could be secured. On Tuesday, Syria accepted the proposal.
For countries who have genuine concerns about chemical weapons but do not endorse a military solution or intervention in Syria's civil war on the side of the opposition, this approach allows them to claim they are upholding both a norm against the use of chemical weapons (and also to embrace the narrative that their use in Syria was not sanctioned by the government, if the German intelligence reports are correct) but also to avoid giving the United States free reign to intervene. France, formerly ready to join the U.S. in a strike even without UN sanction, is now taking the lead to draft a UN Security Council resolution that would serve as the basis for possible implementation of the plan. The British government, who suffered a humiliating loss after Parliament refused to endorse military action, also sees value in the Russian demarche. Even the United States, which initially tried to walk back Kerry's initial comments, is reconsidering—although not shy in voicing its skepticism that this is nothing more than a ploy to delay U.S. action.
This may all end up being a diplomatic dead-end. But for now, the Lavrov proposal has changed the entire conversation about Syria—and put Russia right back where Putin wants it—at the center of the action. President Obama in his address tonight will have to take up the Russian proposal.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.