From Russia With Love: A New Take on Syria

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference with Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Kerry said Syria's President Bashar Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding a chemical weapons attack simply by turning over "every single bit" of his weapons stock to the international community within a week.
National Journal
Rebecca Kaplan Billy House Michael Catalini
Sept. 9, 2013, 5:45 p.m.

As the ad­min­is­tra­tion presses its case for a strike on Syr­ia and the clock con­tin­ues to tick to­ward a Sen­ate vote, an al­tern­at­ive call­ing for the Bashar al-As­sad re­gime to put its chem­ic­al weapons un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol ap­pears to be gain­ing some trac­tion both in­side and out­side of Con­gress.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry in­tro­duced the idea in re­marks in Lon­don on Monday. Not long after, Rus­si­an of­fi­cials em­braced it and Pres­id­ent Obama him­self said he would be will­ing to put plans for a strike on hold if the Syr­i­an dic­tat­or com­plied.

“It’s pos­sible,” Obama said on CNN, “if it’s real.”

With many me­dia tal­lies show­ing weak con­gres­sion­al sup­port for a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing the use of force, sev­er­al law­makers — in­clud­ing some vet­er­an Demo­crats — ex­pressed early sup­port for the idea.

“I would wel­come such a move,” Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., said in a state­ment.

The de­vel­op­ment comes as the Sen­ate is pre­par­ing for pro­ced­ur­al votes on a res­ol­u­tion this week, though Re­pub­lic­an aides said on Monday it is un­likely the House would vote this week. Aides said the House is likely to take up the Sen­ate res­ol­u­tion, if it passes, rather than cast up its own, though they are ex­pect­ing at least two days of de­bate.

Kerry, re­spond­ing to a re­port­er’s ques­tion while speak­ing along­side the Brit­ish for­eign min­is­ter, seemed to present Rus­sia, a key ally of the Syr­i­an re­gime, with an open­ing. Asked wheth­er there was any­thing As­sad could do to pre­vent an at­tack, he answered in the af­firm­at­ive.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chem­ic­al weapons to the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity in the next week,” Kerry said. “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.”

After his com­ment, Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov in­dic­ated Rus­sia would work with Dam­as­cus to place the weapons un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol.

Some law­makers hailed Lav­rov’s state­ment as an al­tern­at­ive to mil­it­ary strikes, which polls show are widely un­pop­u­lar with the pub­lic.

“I be­lieve that Rus­sia can be most ef­fect­ive in en­cour­aging the Syr­i­an pres­id­ent to stop any use of chem­ic­al weapons and place all his chem­ic­al mu­ni­tions, as well as stor­age fa­cil­it­ies, un­der United Na­tions con­trol un­til they can be des­troyed,” Fein­stein said.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also ex­pressed hope that a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion could be ar­ranged and wel­comed the de­vel­op­ment. But Durbin sug­ges­ted there was cause for skep­ti­cism be­cause of the dif­fi­culty of as­sur­ing that chem­ic­al weapons are se­curely in the hands of a third party.

“If there is a way to do this dip­lo­mat­ic­ally, safely, and to do it in a fash­ion where we can be cer­tain this type of at­ro­city will not oc­cur again, we ab­so­lutely have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to pur­sue it,” Durbin said.

House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Buck McK­eon, R-Cal­if., said the pro­pos­al would be an op­tion worth pur­su­ing if it could pre­vent an­oth­er war. But he said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would have to look at it care­fully.

For his part, As­sad denied that he used chem­ic­al weapons in an in­ter­view with Charlie Rose that aired this week. In his first com­ments with U.S. me­dia since Obama has sought Con­gress’s ap­prov­al for a strike, As­sad re­proached the ad­min­is­tra­tion and said the U.S. should ex­pect re­per­cus­sions if it strikes Syr­ia.

Some le­gis­lat­ors say they are not sure they can take Syr­ia — or Rus­sia — ser­i­ously enough to pur­sue a deal over chem­ic­al weapons.

“It’s not real at this point. It’s been offered; we haven’t heard Syr­ia’s re­sponse. There’s so much more to learn about it,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., rank­ing mem­ber on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “If Syr­ia were to give up all of their chem­ic­al weapons, that would be the best pos­sible res­ult.”

“Make no mis­take about it, [Rus­sia] wouldn’t be pro­pos­ing this after years of block­ing any ac­tion in the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil if not for the po­ten­tial use of mil­it­ary strikes to de­ter the fu­ture use of chem­ic­al weapons. That’s what ex­plains their change in be­ha­vi­or after three years,” said Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md.

Former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, speak­ing at a White House for­um on a sep­ar­ate top­ic, also ap­peared to sup­port the idea. “If the re­gime im­me­di­ately sur­renders its stock­piles to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol, as was sug­ges­ted by Sec­ret­ary Kerry and the Rus­si­ans, that would be an im­port­ant step,” she said.

Des­pite the talk of al­tern­at­ives, the ad­min­is­tra­tion pressed ahead with its over­tures to law­makers on Monday. The House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee met in a clas­si­fied ses­sion with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials over Syr­ia; law­makers met in a closed-door ses­sion in the Cap­it­ol; and some sen­at­ors met with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials at the White House on Monday.

Obama, who re­cor­ded a half-dozen tele­vi­sion in­ter­views on Monday, will head to the Cap­it­ol on Tues­day to meet with the Demo­crat­ic caucus and Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence be­fore giv­ing a tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion on Syr­ia.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., fore­stalled fil­ing clo­ture on Monday night, say­ing he had the votes but that he wanted to give the pres­id­ent a chance to speak to “all 100 sen­at­ors and all 300 mil­lion Amer­ic­an people be­fore we do this.”

Re­id also delayed the vote so the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Sen­ate would have time to con­sider wheth­er the Rus­si­an pro­pos­al was ser­i­ous, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. But Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­ers nev­er­the­less pressed ahead with their sup­port for a mil­it­ary strike.

“Syr­ia and Rus­sia lack cred­ib­il­ity on this is­sue, Syr­ia hav­ing denied un­til re­cently that it had chem­ic­al weapons or that it de­ployed them,” Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., said. “We have tried dip­lomacy.”

Re­id, re­fer­ring to the gas at­tacks of World War I and cit­ing the Itali­an poet Dante, made the case for at­tack­ing As­sad on mor­al grounds. Speak­ing on the Sen­ate floor, Re­id said he saw a video show­ing a chem­ic­al weapons at­tack. “I will nev­er get that out of my mind,” he said.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., who told a Ken­tucky audi­ence last week that he would an­nounce a po­s­i­tion, failed to re­but Re­id’s call for a res­ol­u­tion. In­stead, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., re­but­ted the ma­jor­ity lead­er, but said he would wait un­til the pres­id­ent’s speech to an­nounce how he will vote. Mc­Con­nell will ad­dress Syr­ia Tues­day morn­ing, spokes­man Don Stew­art said.

The de­bate also con­tin­ued off the Hill.

Kerry im­plored law­makers to at­tend in­tel­li­gence brief­ings and ar­gued there was no doubt the As­sad gov­ern­ment used chem­ic­al weapons. He also stressed that a U.S. strike would be highly tar­geted, in com­ments that drew wide ri­dicule on the In­ter­net.

“That is ex­actly what we’re talk­ing about do­ing — un­be­liev­ably small, lim­ited kind of ef­fort,” he said.

Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice de­livered an ad­dress out­lining the case against the As­sad re­gime at the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion, ar­guing that the use of chem­ic­al weapons should be answered.

“Fail­ing to re­spond brings us closer to the day when ter­ror­ists might gain and use chem­ic­al weapons against Amer­ic­ans abroad and at home,” she said.

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