Today, John Kerry meets with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in Geneva, an engagement that wasn’t on the secretary of state’s calendar, oh, three days ago. The subject will be a plan, submitted by Moscow to Washington, for disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. The moment stems from a whirlwind of recent events, Kerry triggering things as he answered a reporter’s question, speculating about how Syria might avoid a military strike in response to its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
The secretary talked about Syria giving up its chemical weapons in a credible manner. Russia jumped to seize the opening, a chance to rescue its friend, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and its influence in the Middle East. No doubt, Kerry should approach the meeting with much skepticism. Yet there is an opportunity for advancing the cause of a political resolution to the civil war, or building a stronger case for the diplomatic and moral authority to strike the Syrian regime.
In his nationally televised speech on Tuesday evening, President Obama proved more persuasive in mounting the argument for an international response to the use of chemical weapons, deploying military force against Syria for violating a long-established international norm. That threat of a strike moved Syria, in the wake of Russia, admitting for the first time to having chemical weapons, pledging to give them up and to sign the international convention banning their use.
Now a new standard of behavior has been set. If Syria opts for delay, or otherwise fudges its commitment, the case for punishment or degrading its military arsenal grows stronger. That is especially so in view of the focus turning to the United Nations, a resolution in the works ordering Syria to meet deadlines for such steps as revealing its chemical weapons and allowing for inspections.
Many countries have condemned the actions of the Syrian regime, citing the video and audio evidence and the testing of independent experts. Still, they have not rallied to a military strike. Many are alert, and understandably so, to the complexities of Syria and the region. Such thinking has been apparent on Capitol Hill as senators and representatives weigh the president’s welcome request for their support. With the Russian initiative, the White House has gained more time for its arguments to resonate and even take hold.
One line of criticism against the president has gone: What about the 100,000 casualties who have been victims of conventional warfare? One answer follows that chemical weapons long have been beyond the pale. Yet the criticism also points to what has been missing. Now that the international community finds the Syrian civil war front and center, the moment is ripe to mobilize in pursuit of a political settlement, the use of chemical weapons a signal of how things could escalate, adding to the refugees and endangering neighboring countries.
Russia and the United States not long ago discussed convening settlement talks, or a subject worth attention, too, at today’s meeting in Geneva.