The chemical-nuclear tie-up

Was Kerry's "throw-away remark" about the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons really a gaffe?

Kerry in press conference on Syria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Kerry in press conference on Syria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Popular myth, assiduously fostered by the media, is that a throw-away remark by a tired US Secretary of State undermined President Obama’s response to the poison gas attack by the Assad regime on 21 August. 
During a press conference in London, one journalist asked John Kerry: “Is there anything Assad could do to avert a US attack?”
"Sure,” replied Kerry, “he could turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay. But he isn’t about to."
The media was jubilant at what seemed an obvious gaffe: “American plans for military strikes on Syria were in disarray last night,” trumpeted the London Daily Mail, “after Russia seized on a blunder from US Secretary of State John Kerry.” The Kerry’s remarks were “policy-making off-the-top-of-the-head,” said a scathing Washington Examiner.
But was John Kerry’s reply to the journalist merely a throw-away comment with nothing substantial behind it – just an odd thought that happened to come to him after a long, tiring day? Consider this – no sooner were the words out of Kerry’s mouth, than Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov was saying: “We also call on the Syrian leadership not only to put chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, but also to destroy them afterwards.” Is there any significance in the rapidity with which Russia supported Kerry’s suggestion?
The usually trustworthy Israel-based Debkafile, which specializes in political analysis, is convinced that Russia’s backing for the initiative is part of a behind-the-scenes deal linking Syria’s chemical weapons débacle with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Debkafile asserts that secret trilateral talks between the US, Russia, and Iran had been in progress for three weeks prior to Secretary Kerry’s “off-the-cuff” remarks, and that when he made them, a formula had already been agreed for defusing the Syrian chemical weapons issue without the use of military force, as a part of an agreement to facilitate direct nuclear talks between the US and Iran.
There are other indicators of a secret agreement linking Iran’s latest strategy on protecting its nuclear program with the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, announced on September 10 that the meeting of the UN General Assembly later this month “may prove the perfect setting to reignite talks about the nation’s nuclear program.”  Shortly afterwards – as a counter-gesture of good will, one presumes – the US Treasury Department lifted a string of long-standing sanctions restricting humanitarian and related exchanges between the US and Iranian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
It is suggested that in exchanges between the US and Russian presidents, Putin assured Obama that an agreed formula for defusing the Syrian chemical weapons issue without military force would provide the key to progress in nuclear talks with Iran. Debkafile asserts that high-ranking Iranian officials were present in Damascus and Moscow throughout the Obama-Putin discussions on Syria, and that points of agreement were brought to Tehran for approval.
As a result, as soon as the Russians had pledged to bring Assad’s chemical arsenal under international control and destroy it, Tehran announced it would engage in direct dialogue with Washington when the next UN General Assembly session opens in New York on September 23 – a step it had consistently refused to take. The state-run Iranian news agency reported Rouhani, who is due to attend this month’s United Nations gathering with his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as saying he would use that occasion to get talks with the international community up and running again.
Meanwhile, it is suggested that in another part of his deal with the Russian president, Obama did not object to Moscow providing the Syrian army with a fresh supply of advanced weapons in substantial quantities to compensate Assad for giving up his chemical arsenal.  And indeed, on September 6, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that a large amphibious ship, the Nikolai Filchenkov which belongs to the Black Sea fleet, would make a passage from the Crimea to the Russian seaport of Novorossiysk, “where the cargos due to be delivered to the Syrian port of Tartous will be loaded into it.”
The result of all this high-powered diplomacy seems to have resulted in a win-win situation all round. 
The Russia-Iranian-Syrian axis has averted a much-feared military strike by the United States, which could not only have degraded Assad’s fighting capability, but decisively altered the balance of power in Syria itself and the region generally.  Neither Russia nor Iran wished to see the loss of their own influence that US involvement in the conflict might have brought about.  Additionally Russia, as broker of the non-military resolution of the Syria débacle, has achieved a significant propaganda coup on the world stage, while Iran’s so-called “moderate” president has provided Iran’s nuclear program with even more time to proceed towards its goal of achieving nuclear weapon capability. Even Assad will gain by a substantial additional supply from Russia of conventional weapons to assist him in clinging on to power.
As for the Obama administration, it is already claiming – with some justification – that without the clearly stated wish of the President to use military means to punish Assad for slaughtering 1500 of his own people with poison gas, the non-military resolution of Syria’s chemical weapon usage would never have taken place.  Obama clearly regarded the military approach as a last resort, and the fact that he is now able to provide the American public with an outcome which did not involve its use is a feather in his cap.There is clearly more than meets the eye to the resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons issue. It seems to be a classic case of wheels within wheels.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (