Candid remark from Kerry leads to Syria disarmament proposal

September 10, 2013

While making a case for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry became an inadvertent peacemaker this week, and highlighted the risks and rewards of a chief diplomat who loves to talk but does not love the talking point.

Kerry’s seemingly stray remark Monday about a way to avoid U.S. military action became an international disarmament proposal on Tuesday, when President Obama agreed to seek consensus at the United Nations Security Council to place Syria’s chemical weapons under the control of international monitors.

Kerry’s candid remark came after months of back-channel discussions with Russia about securing Syria’s chemical arsenal.

No one, least of all Kerry, expected it to happen when he suggested at a London news conference that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could head off cruise-missile strikes by giving up his stockpile of chemical weapons.

Kerry is prone to making the occasional unscripted remark, and “sometimes, when I do, I get in trouble,” he explained to Congress on Tuesday. His rhetorical style can soar and crash-land in a single, run-on sentence. With three decades in the Senate and a presidential run behind him, he also is a natural debater who doesn’t shrink from a fight, or a question.

He could have dodged the subject of averting strikes Monday, and few if any observers probably would have noticed. But with recent, largely theoretical discussions about securing the stockpile in mind, Kerry plunged ahead and gave a response that was far newsier than he intended.

“He shies away from pre-cooked announcements,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. “You’re in a country having discussions so you can move closer to your goal, and oftentimes that means things are moving quickly.”

Indeed, travel with Kerry can feel very seat-of-the-pants. Itineraries are subject to change as ad hoc meetings run deep into the night.

Kerry has tackled what seems like every major foreign policy problem at once since taking office in February. But his particular focus has been reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and it is by tackling that seemingly in­trac­table conflict that Kerry has set out to be measured.

Syria has also consumed a great deal of Kerry’s time, with much of his efforts spent lowering expectations among Syrian rebels and some U.S. partners that President Obama would sanction any U.S. military intervention in the country’s grinding civil war.

Kerry has made little secret of his own preference for stronger U.S. action, and when the Syrian regime allegedly attacked civilians with poison gas last month, he became the leading spokesman for a tough response.

The Russian intervention to head off strikes was more unexpected than unwelcome. And Tuesday, Kerry and others rushed to claim advantage.

Assad and his Russian backers would never have entertained a concession on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal if the threat of a U.S. attack was not real, Kerry argued.

“Our goal from the beginning has been to secure the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria,” a senior administration official said Tuesday. “The announcement by the Russians was the result of months of meetings and conversations between Presidents Obama and [Vladimir] Putin, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary [Sergei] Lavrov, about the role Russia could play in securing chemical weapons.”

Obama and Putin first discussed the concept a year ago at a Group of 20 meeting in Mexico, and had a fairly detailed conversation about it in an unscheduled meeting on the sidelines of this year’s G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg last week, the official said.

Kerry and Lavrov quietly revisited it in several conversations that began in April. The two discussed replicating the model of Libya’s nuclear program, which was removed in 2003 under an international agreement, the official said. The official requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions.

Kerry hinted at deeper cooperation with Russia over Syria, even as the two nations very publicly disagreed. But the idea stayed very quiet until Kerry’s remarks Monday.

On Thursday, he will be back in Europe for meetings with Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. An administration official said the session in Geneva will follow up on the Russian proposal to place Assad’s chemical stockpile under international control and ultimately to destroy it.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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