There’s no way to know at this point if John Kerry’s “offhand” suggestion that U.S. military strikes on Syria might be avoided if Assad gives up his chemical weapon stockpiles was actually “offhand” or part of the administration’s plan. But now that Russia, the United Kingdom and Syria itself are greeting the idea positively, and the administration is said to be “reviewing” the Russian government’s proposal for how it might happen, this could be a game-changer, at least temporarily. It comes, moreover, in the wake of a report from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Russia and Iran were already preparing a peace proposal that involved surrender of chemical weapons and perhaps even a path to free elections in Syria.
How this affects the administration’s plans for the next 48 hours–interviews by the president with major news outlets tonight, a speech to the nation tomorrow night, and then a vote in the Senate on a use-of-force resolution on Wednesday–is impossible to predict, unless this is part of some quietly prepared plan. Without question, if the Russian overture gains traction, the administration will be able to legitimately claim the president’s threat of a military strike produced this new option for dealing with Assad’s chemical weapons. The White House could go for broke in the Senate even as negotiations continue, adding to its leverage the argument that keeping up the pressure on Assad and his allies is essential. Frankly, the only Senators in a position to throw a major monkey wrench into that approach are McCain and Graham, who don’t want a negotiated settlement over chemical weapons but rather a war.
In any event, with the situation in the House and in public opinion deteriorating rapidly, this new development could represent a 180-degree change in a positive direction for the Obama administration, and a plausible way out of a military conflict no one but neocons seemed to relish. All along the administration has argued that it simply seeks to enforce “international norms” on chemical weapons. If nothing else, Obama now has international support from an ally (Britain), a rival (Russia) and an enemy (Iran) for doing so. We’ll soon see how real this “way out” actually is, but for the moment, it’s a game-changer.