In one masterly counter move, Russia has changed the nature of the debate on Syria and has momentarily checked the U.S. position as world conscience and global policeman. In a very fluid situation in political and diplomatic circles, the game changer has been the Russian proposal that Syrian chemical weapons be handed over to an international authority, a proposal to which Syria has evidently agreed. A flurry of questions is emerging now in the U.S. and internationally, about the facts, the motives and the possible outcomes behind the proposal.
Syria is one of just five countries that did not sign the UN Convention which prohibits the use and production of chemical weapons and expects signatories to declare and destroy them, as verified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). As of July 2013, around 81 percent of the (declared) stockpile of chemical weapons has been destroyed, but the nature and extent of Syria's inventory remains a huge question.
In peacetime, the details of Assad's arsenal were unknown and now, even the best intelligence cannot account for Syria's weapons and whereabouts during this volatile period of civil war. We can be sure that in the last few weeks, they have been moved to deep bunkers and secure positions following the threat of surgical strikes in retaliation. We doubt that this offer by Russia and Syria can be verified as genuine, complete and immediate, and it is looking more and more likely that a U.S. military strike against Syria will be postponed -- leaving Russia the winner in this complex game of maneuvering for international prestige.
The barriers to a successful outcome seem insurmountable. For example, how quickly can a UN team of inspectors begin to identify, disarm, remove and destroy the Syria stockpile of chemical weapons? Will President Assad conceal some of his stockpile of chemical weapons, handing over some of them as a propaganda exercise, and possibly giving some to Hezbollah as insurance for the future?
Will a UN inspection team be able to satisfy the international community that is still horrified by the Assad regime's brutal attack on its own people? Will it pave the way for the calling to account of those who perpetrated the attack and create a pathway to a ceasefire and a negotiated peace?
Pragmatists suggest that the Russian proposal is simply an elaborate game of bluff, a stalling for time by Putin in response to the perceived slights he has received over the years. Russia has often felt it deserved more international deference and now Putin can feel that he is acting like a major global player. The game of chess being played out now is based on the much publicized "cold and inconclusive" meeting of Obama and Putin at the G20 summit and U.S. anger about Russia's role in the Edward Snowden affair.
But as Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday to a meeting of the Armed Services Committee, it is time to separate policy and politics. This is a time to make ethical and moral decisions and the proposed surrender of Syria's chemical weapons to an international authority cannot be just another excuse for delay and obstruction. President Obama feels he needs congressional approval for military action to give him further leverage to get President Assad to the negotiating table; Russia on the other hand is worried that the chemical weapons deal will be off if Obama gets congressional authorization of a strike option.
It is a classic stalemate, and the initiative will surely fail while the world sits back and watches as more Syrians die and more refugees continue to flee to neighboring countries that are ill prepared to help them. Whatever happens over the chemical weapons, it does not change the fact that the killing must stop, Assad must go and the nation must be rebuilt by the Syrian National Coalition and its international allies.
Putin and Obama have the power to bring Syria to an international accounting, and we can only hope they will put personal chagrin and politics aside and will allow a humanitarian policy to prevail.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a Lecturer at the University of Chicago.