LONDON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, to discuss a new initiative that could end the threat of U.S. airstrikes against Syria. This after a casual comment by the secretary about Syria’s chemical weapons led Lavrov to go public with an idea the U.S. and Russia had talked about privately. But experts question whether this is a real breakthrough, or if Syria and its ally Russia will use diplomacy to divert attention from the alleged large-scale chemical weapons attack last month.
It was at a news conference Monday in London when a reporter asked Secretary Kerry whether there was anything Syria could do to avoid an attack.
“Sure, he can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week," he said. "Turn it over, all of it.”
But the secretary immediately made clear he was speaking theoretically and did not expect anything like that to happen.
“But he is not about to do it," he said. "And it can not be done, obviously.”
Or can it? The Russian foreign minister saw an opportunity in the secretary’s remark, welcoming it at a Moscow news conference. His Syrian counterpart said Damascus might go along.
"I am authorized to confirm our support for the Russian initiative concerning the chemical weapons in Syria,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
It was a startling 24 hours. But were the Syrians and Russians truly embracing the plan, or are they stalling for time?
International security expert Joanna Kidd, of London’s King’s College, says Syria relies on its chemical weapons as a pillar of its defense, and it would be reluctant to truly give them up.
“It is a job that would take several months to do," she said. "And of course, one should not forget that obviously there is a civil war going on in Syria that would greatly complicate the process.”
That war has been raging for two-and-a-half years. But it was the alleged chemical weapons attack last month, which the United States says it can prove was ordered by senior Syrian officials, that led to President Barack Obama’s threat to launch airstrikes, and now the Russian and Syrian effort to avoid them.
Paul Schulte, a London-based chemical weapons analyst of the Carnegie Endowment, says a chemical attack should result in a strong international response, and he’s not sure if the Russian approach will suffice.
“The Russian plan, which might be a wild card or might be a game-changer, is still very unclear, and there is a lot of skepticism about whether it could ever work,” he said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in The Hague, could provide inspectors to verify new controls on Syria’s chemical weapons. But there may not be enough of them, and they may not be willing to work in the middle of a civil war.
It could take months to negotiate the details, while the civil war rages on, and the potential for U.S. airstrikes looms. But as long as Russia is championing Syria’s new talk of joining the global ban on chemical weapons, the Damascus government may find it difficult to use them again.