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Opinion: The Question that Became an Initiative | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reacts during his joint news conference with Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London September 9, 2013. (REUTERS/Alastair Grant/pool)

The massive diplomatic wave, which as we can see today is moving from one world capital to another, passing through Syria into Iran, began with a question from a female journalist during a September 9 joint press conference in London between the US Secretary of State and the British Foreign Secretary. The journalist’s question was whether there is anything Bashar Al-Assad could do to avert the military strike that the US President had asked Congress to authorize. In what initially seemed like a slip of the tongue, John Kerry said if Assad were to turn over all his chemical weapons to the international community within the week, he could avert the strike, before adding that Assad would not do this. The US State Department attempted to minimize the impact of Kerry’s remarks by saying that it was a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question.

However, what initially seemed like a slip of a tongue, or a hypothetical answer to an innocuous question, proved to have more to it than that during the hours and days that followed. Moscow picked up on the brief answer and turned it into an initiative which was—to the astonishment of many, including Washington’s own allies—immediately approved by the Syrian authorities in Damascus. This culminated in marathon negotiations between the US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over three days in Geneva. These negotiations produced a thorough initiative that has granted all sides vital breathing space—even if it has yet to prove that it can be implemented on the ground—particularly given the fact that the drums of war were beating.

It is hard to believe that this initiative that quickly gathered momentum—something that is unprecedented in international diplomacy—among parties who were on the verge of entering into a confrontation was a mere coincidence triggered by a seemingly innocent question during a press conference. It is also difficult not to link this initiative, which remains the subject of controversy and different interpretations, to the discussions between the US and Russian presidents at the G20 Summit in Russia, or indeed to any previous discussions. This is something that became obvious yesterday following the talks held by Western powers in Paris.

Is the US-Russian agreement a step forward or a step into the unknown? This is something that will only be answered in the coming days, particularly following the forthcoming UN General Assembly session and the second round of US-Russian talks. We don’t yet know whether Washington and Moscow will be able to open the door to Geneva II negotiations on the transition process in Syria.

Hoping that military strikes on the Assad regime forces that have recently made gains on the ground would tip the balance of power in their favor, the Syrian opposition appear to be the biggest losers in this chemical agreement. However, on the other hand, they can benefit from this agreement if they view it as being the first international agreement compelling the Syrian regime, under the threat of force, to take measures that demand the deployment of inspectors and experts on the ground to dismantle Assad’s chemical stockpiles. As a result of this, the Assad regime will not be able to mobilize its forces and continue shelling in light of the practical steps that this agreement entails on the ground.

This prompts us to say that if Geneva II is to take place—whether in Geneva or anywhere else—to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Syrian opposition must not miss the opportunity to participate and put the Assad regime to the test regarding the transfer of power. The Syrian regime’s main allies will not be able to cover Assad’s procrastination, particularly now that the UN report has confirmed that a war crime has been committed in terms of the use of sarin gas against civilians, while the type of weapons used to deploy this gas points the finger at the regime.

The US-Russian agreement to dismantle the Syrian regime’s chemical stockpiles has set Assad a time limit. However, on the other hand, it reflects a growing restlessness on the part of Russia and Iran who have opened the door to the implementation of Chapter VII of the UN charter, allowing the use of force if Syria fails to comply with its obligations.