Syria Welcomes Russian Proposal to Hand Over Chemical Weapons: A Diplomatic Opening or a Head-Fake?

An off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry may have provided the best way out of U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Russian Prime Minister (then President) Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.
Photo Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t meant to mean much. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s comment that an American military attack on Syria could be averted by the handover of chemical weapons stocks may have provided a diplomatic opening to ending the Syrian crisis and threats of U.S. military intervention. Russia is now taking Kerry up on his offer, and Syria may be as well.

Earlier today, at a press conference in London, Kerry was asked if anything could be done to stop a U.S. military attack. He replied: “Sure, he 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 the full and total accounting.” The State Department then tried to clarify Kerry’s remark by releasing a statementdownplaying the one-week ultimatum. “Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement.

Russia, Syria’s main international backer, is now testing whether Kerry could be persuaded to end the war footing the U.S. is on. The Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov announced that his government would ask Syria to hand over over their chemical weapons stocks. Lavrov proposed that Syria’s chemical weapons be given to the international community. And now Syria appears to be open to the idea. Reuters reports that the Syrian government is welcoming the Russian proposal, though the news outlet also says that the Syrian government “stopped short of saying explicitly that President Bashar al-Assad's government accepted it.”

Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, called the chemical weapons proposal a “big step forward” but also said it shouldn’t be a used a “distraction tactic.”

The news of Russia’s offer comes on the heels of a report by the Israeli daily Haaretz on another diplomatic proposal: Iran, Russia and Syria working to plan for a transition to democratic elections that would lead to the end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. 

It’s unclear whether the current Russian proposal will lead to anything serious. It may be a ploy by Russia and Syria to buy time until the threat of a U.S. military attack is called off. But it could also be a way to solve the crisis without U.S. missile strikes, which could escalate the Syrian crisis and lead to serious consequences for the Middle East. If President Barack Obama was looking for a way out of taking military action against Syria, Russia and Syria may have just presented him with an escape hatch. If the U.S. refuses to even consider the proposal, Obama will end up looking like he was always bent on intervention.


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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