MOSCOW (Reuters) - If it really was just an offhand remark by the U.S. Secretary of State that gave Russia the chance to play peacemaker in the Syrian conflict, Moscow is certainly not letting on.
Instead it is presenting this week’s proposal for Syria to put its chemical arms under international control as an approach worked out with the United States, a position that might help U.S. President Barack Obama endorse it.
Either way, after two years of being painted in the West as an obstacle to peace in Syria, Russia finds itself in the unusual position of being a proponent of a plan that could reduce tension in the Middle East, even though actually taking control of Syria’s chemical weapons in the middle of a war will present considerable difficulties.
“I think that in the next seven to 10 days a decision will be taken in principle,” Alexei Pushkov, an ally of President Vladimir Putin who heads the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Tuesday.
Sealing the deal on chemical would take the heat out of the situation and boost chances of a negotiated solution to the wider crisis.
“The key to overcoming the split in the international community on the Syrian issue was the Russian proposal on putting chemical weapons in Syria under international control.”
However the initiative took shape, it gives Putin a chance to strengthen his credentials as a statesman and could enhance Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s reputation as a wily diplomat.
Washington might beg to differ. It has suggested Moscow is trying to buy time and pursuing peace moves only because of Obama’s threat of military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over an alleged chemical weapons attack.
But what a difference a few days make. Last week Obama and Putin locked horns over Syria at a Group of 20 (G20) summit in St. Petersburg and left the meeting of the club of developed and developing nations bitterly divided.
Three months ago, Putin was frozen out at a Group of Eight (G8) summit because of his support for Assad, and Obama later likened him to a pupil who slouched at the back of the class.
Now, Russia suggests, he and Obama are united behind a plan which both sides say could be a breakthrough, in spite of dismay expressed over it by Syrian rebels, and skepticism among their key Gulf Arab backers, who point out that a deal on chemical weapons will not stop the bloodshed.
The Kremlin sought to underline this impression of unity on Tuesday by saying that Putin and Obama had talked about the chemical arms proposal last week in St Petersburg.
Its remark was intended to end speculation that Russia had acted entirely alone and merely seized on a comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry which the State Department later played down as an attempt to make a rhetorical point.
After talks in London, Kerry was asked how military strikes on Syria might be averted. He said Assad “could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”
Lavrov said on Tuesday he had discussed the idea with the Americans before.
“(It) is not an entirely Russian initiative. It stems from contacts we have had with our American colleagues, from yesterday’s statement by John Kerry, who said strikes could be avoided if this problem is solved,” Lavrov told reporters.
The initiative offers Obama a convenient way to pull back from the threat of military action - which has left him increasingly isolated - over the August 21 gas attack which Washington says killed some 1,400 people in a rebel-held area.
This suits the Kremlin because it wants to shield Assad, a recipient of Russian arms, and prevent any military action that is not approved by the U.N. Security Council to avoid undermining the vehicle where Moscow holds a veto.
There is still little certainty as to how the proposal took shape. Russian diplomats suggested that it was not entirely scripted but a broad idea that had already been floated was rapidly pulled into a diplomatic initiative on the back of Kerry’s remark.
“We heard Kerry’s statement. We had contacts with our Syrian colleagues. It happened yesterday,” said one Foreign Ministry official.
Another said the proposal had been discussed in broad terms with Washington but added: “It was not discussed in detail with the Americans because the Syrian government’s response was not known. We latched on to the statement by John Kerry.”
The West is now watching to see whether Moscow follows through on the plan or simply plays for time to stall military action and protect Assad.
Lavrov may have called Washington’s bluff by seizing on Kerry’s comment. Now the United States will want see whether Russia backs up its words with deeds.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Giles Elgood