Did Kerry blink in Syria standoff? Update: Russia ups the ante

posted at 10:01 am on September 9, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

Last week, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp announced their opposition to American military intervention in Syria, and proposed a 45-day ultimatum for Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons first.  Barack Obama seemed to dismiss that option last week at the G-20 summit, but ABC News reports that John Kerry may have offered it as a way out of the trap Obama has set for himself:

America’s top diplomat suggested in a passing remark that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a U.S.-led strike if he handed over all his chemical weapons, but the State Department quickly dismissed the comment as more of a “rhetorical argument” than an offer.

In a London news conference this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to a question about whether Assad could do anything to avoid war by saying “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 a full and total accounting.”

Kerry delivered the statement almost dismissively and quickly said Assad had no intention of giving up “weapons he denies using.” But it was still the first time such a suggestion had been made by the Obama administration.

Was this a clever ploy to retreat from a losing situation at home and abroad, or was this a fumble by America’s top diplomat?  A hasty State Department correction suggests the latter:

The State Department was forced to clarify the remarks, calling them “rhetorical” and making clear its desire to strike could be tempered by a Syrian offer. Kerry’s point, according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki, “was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons.”

In other words … smooth move.  Putting that on the table gives the only US ally even potentially willing to contribute to a military operation that much more reason to pause, and the rest of the global community a chance to point out that the US hasn’t made any effort over the past year to resolve this issue peacefully.  That won’t help the White House in Congress, where the Manchin-Heitkamp approach may look a lot more rational, especially with the confused and amateurish bungling in the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, Russia and Syria have made another play for more time.  Both nations called for the return of UN inspectors to Syria for more investigation into a series of alleged chemical-weapons attacks:

Russian and Syrian foreign ministers on Monday strongly pushed for the return of United Nations inspectors to Syria to continue their probe into the use of chemical weapons and again warned Washington against launching an attack.

The statement comes as President Barack Obama, who blames President Bashar Assad for killing hundreds of his own people in a chemical attack last month, is pressing for a limited strike against the Syrian government. It has denied launching the attack, insisting along with its ally Russia that the attack was launched by the rebels to drag the U.S. into war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after Monday’s talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem that U.N. chemical weapons experts should complete their probe and present their findings to the U.N. Security Council.

“We have agreed to push for the soonest return of inspectors,” Lavrov said.

Al-Moallem said his government was ready to host the U.N. team, and insisted that Syria is ready to use all channels to convince the Americans that it wasn’t behind the attack.

He added that Syria was ready for “full cooperation with Russia to remove any pretext for aggression.”

After Kerry’s statement, it’s going to be more difficult for the White House to argue that the time for diplomacy has ended.

Update: And right on queue, Russia steps into the sweet spot left by Kerry:

The Russian foreign minister says Moscow will push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control.

Sergey Lavrov said Monday that if such a move would help avert a possible U.S. strike on Syria, Russia will start work “immediately” to persuade Syria to relinquish control over its chemical arsenals.

Lavrov told reporters that Russia would urge Syria to concentrate its chemical weapons in certain areas under international oversight and then dismantle them.

This is the difference between playing checkers and three-dimensional chess.

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