The Russian proposal: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nicholas Burns


Pedestrians walk past a placard that reads 'Stop Obama's War' outside the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sept. 9, 2013, as US President Barack Obama said a Russian plan to secure Syria's chemical weapons could be a 'significant breakthrough' but warned he had not taken US strikes off the table.



The proposal that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to avert a foreign strike is gathering steam. President Barack Obama used his six network TV interviews Monday night to say that he would "absolutely" call off plans to launch air strikes if it could be confirmed that the Syrian government had turned over its entire stockpile to international authorities — while stressing that he's still skeptical that will happen.

"I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially," Obama told NBC News of the proposal first thrown out by his Secretary of State John Kerry as a hypothetical scenario, then backed by Russia.

But if — and it's still a big if — the international community can be assured that Bashar al-Assad's government no longer has chemical weapons at its disposal, Obama said the offer could potentially prove "a significant breakthrough."

GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist and former Ambassador Nicholas Burns shares his thoughts on the value of the proposal.

How should President Obama react to the Russian proposal on Syria’s chemical weapons?

President Obama really has no choice but to look at this proposal seriously. To do otherwise would lead to a further loss of international and congressional support.  To refuse to at least consider the Russian idea would make the president appear callous and hell-bent on the use of force.

But, he needs to look at it skeptically and ask tough questions.  

At a minimum, the US should work with France and the UK, two other permanent members of the UN Security Council, to insist on the fastest possible implementation of the idea by Syria. And they will need to secure ironclad promises from both Syria and Russia that the chemical weapons will leave Syrian control forever.

At the same time, it is clear that Assad and the Russians only offered this proposal at the eleventh hour because Obama had made a credible threat of force against the Damascus regime. That is why the US needs to keep the threat of force on the table — to keep the Syrians and Russians honest and to hold Assad’s feet to the fire.

What is extraordinary and just a little surreal about the Russian offer and initial Syrian response is that it amounts to the very first time Syria has acknowledged it possesses chemical weapons. It had denied this for decades, right through Assad’s creepy interview with Charlie Rose over the weekend. That is an indication of just how cynical this proposal is and how untrustworthy Assad continues to be. Another reason to insist on the strongest possible verification measures. 

To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan — we shouldn’t trust Assad but should verify every aspect of this proposal before we support it.

How can the US ensure the Russian proposal is not a delaying tactic but a real route to resolve the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons?

France, Obama’s new best friend, will introduce on Tuesday a toughly worded UN Security Council resolution challenging Syria to comply with the Russian plan immediately.  

France intends to frame the resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would make the resolution mandatory for all nations to implement and raises the possibility it could ultimately be enforced by military means. The first skirmish at the UN Tuesday may well be a Russian counterattack to delete the Chapter VII basis of the resolution.

France and the US, however, should demand the toughest possible provisions in this UN resolution. At a minimum, it should censure Syria for its brutal and cynical use of chemical weapons against civilians last month. It should force Syria to identify all the chemical weapons stocks in its arsenal and to turn them over to a credible international body, such as the UN, immediately for destruction. In addition, France wants to include a clause that there would be “serious consequences” should Syria not comply. In other words, that the US and France could then take military measures should Assad renege, as is possible, on the deal.

Expect Russia and China to try to water down this tough French resolution. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, the Security Council has been divided between the US, France and the UK on one side pushing for action and Russia and China on the other using their veto to protect Assad and stop any international action against him. That pattern will likely play out now in the UN in the days ahead.

If so, Obama and French President Francois Hollande need to remain tough and vigilant and prepared to take up arms again should the plan fall apart.

But, if the Russia plan succeeds, does that effectively resolve Obama’s Syria crisis and let Congress off the hook?

It may appear that way. Members of Congress, especially, will be relieved they don’t have to cast one of the toughest votes of their careers. Many in the Obama administration will be relieved the president did not suffer a historic defeat in Congress.

But, the Syria crisis will live on.

The humanitarian disaster that has left millions of Syrians without home or work and on the run from the fighting will continue. And, the raging civil war with mainly disreputable contestants on both sides will continue to ravage the country and threaten to spread to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

There is still a critical need for the world’s superpower, the US, to lead, provide much greater support to refugees and to help engineer a cease-fire.

Do we have the strength, will and patience to take on those diplomatic challenges?

A distracted and exhausted Washington will not want to face those tests. Neo-isolationists in Congress will continue to call for American retreat from the world. But, there will continue to be no alternative to American leadership in this tragic conflict.

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.