Syria: Now What?

For those of us following the diplomatic intrigue and gamesmanship surrounding the  proposal to put Syria’s chemical stockpiles under international control, this was the key quote from last night’s address:

In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.  The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.

It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments.  But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.

The point about verification clearly articulated what is President Obama’s bottom line. He did not demand that Assad be punished at the International Criminal Court, nor that he must be blamed for the attack — which is what the French proposed yesterday. Rather, Obama’s most basic requirement for the outcome of this diplomacy is that there be a verification mechanism in place to ascertain the extent to which the Syrian government is complying with a potential agreement.

In practical terms, that almost certainly means a United Nations team of technical experts would have to be dispatched to Syria. That, in turn, means that the Security Council would have to pass a resolution to delineate the mandate of this team.  The thing is, according to reporting today from Colum Lynch in the Washington Post, Moscow now says it doesn’t event want a resolution, but something weaker.

 a Russian Foreign Ministry statement indicated that Moscow does not want a Security Council resolution at all. Instead, the statement said, Russia envisions a statement by the council’s president — who rotates and is now an Australian representative — that would “welcome” the plan to monitor and ultimately destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and call on “interested parties” to carry out the plan.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron told members of Parliament that the bare-bones Russian proposal was “definitely worth exploring” but that it must be “tested out properly” to ensure it wasn’t a “ruse.” Any Security Council resolution, he said, must include “a proper timetable, process and consequences if it’s not done.”

I would imagine that this is just posturing by Moscow, which above all does not want a Security Council resolution that threatens the use of force for non-compliance. That is Moscow’s bottom line, which was articulated by President Putin himself.

The good news is that between Obama’s bottom line and Putin’s bottom line there is a lot of daylight.

Finding that daylight will be the measure of whether or not the Geneva meeting tomorrow between Kerry and Lavrov is a success. I suspect they will find it, with the end result being a narrowly crafted Security Council resolution that gives the UN the mandate to control and destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles, and report back to the Security Council about the government’s compliance.  If there is to be a diplomatic solution, that is probably going to be it.