Wednesday 18 October 2017

Change of tack not ad-libbed, says White House

Alex Spillius and  Harriet Alexander

When Margaret Brennan of CBS News asked John Kerry if there was anything the Syrians could do to avert American bombing, she could not have imagined the impact his response would have.

In an apparent jest, the US Secretary of State said that if Bashar al-Assad's regime handed over its chemical weapons stock in a week, then maybe, just maybe, America's guns would remain silent.

His exasperated tone carried no hint that he hoped for a breakthrough. But within hours, Syria's ally Russia had proposed that Damascus should surrender all such weapons to international control in order to prevent a US bombing campaign threatened as punishment for a sarin attack on rebel-held areas.

A diplomatic scramble ensued, in which the White House decided it liked the idea and made a dramatic policy shift, announced by President Barack Obama (right) on Monday evening in several prominent television interviews.

By yesterday, it appeared as though America might just have ad-libbed its way out of going to war. But had it? And was Mr Kerry's answer so spontaneous after all?

Ms Brennan later revealed that the notion of Syria yielding its chemical weapons had been discussed by US and Russian officials in May.

Though there is no public reporting of any such conversation, the countries' presidents spoke by phone early in that month, while Mr Kerry met his counterpart Sergei Lavrov twice. Yesterday, US officials were keen to play down the idea that the White House's change of direction lacked any preparation.

Mr Obama told his US interviewers that he had discussed the idea of a chemical weapons surrender with Mr Putin last Friday at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg.

The Russians likewise said the suggestion was "definitely discussed" between the two leaders at the G20. The idea of presenting such a demand to Damascus had in fact been floated publicly for the first time over the weekend at the end of an EU foreign ministers' conference in Lithuania that was addressed by Mr Kerry and where opinion was sharply divided on the wisdom of US air strikes.

The last item in a statement by centre-right EU foreign ministers said: "If the evidence confirms the use of such weapons of mass destruction by the Assad regime, an immediate ultimatum should be issued to the regime to place its stockpile of chemical agents under international control – which could involve Russia – within 30 days."

With Mr Obama struggling to convince Congress to support him, and Mr Assad threatening the US with revenge, the EU declaration was completely overlooked by the media. But some experts thought there had been a mixture of conspiracy and cock-up by the US.

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said: "I don't believe this was purely a gaffe by Kerry. It sounds infinitely plausible that this had been discussed previously, but you could argue the Russians wanted to hear Kerry say something in public before they made a diplomatic move." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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