WASHINGTON — When Secretary of State John Kerry dangled for the first time on Monday actions that President Bashar Assad of Syria could take to avoid a military strike, it seemed an acknowledgment that Congress, America's allies and the Russians were all looking for an off-ramp for what a week ago seemed like inevitably military action against Syria.
The concept has taken on many permutations in the past five days, but its essence is this: force Assad to turn his huge stockpile of chemical weapons over to some kind of international control and recognize the international ban on chemical weapons. The appeal of the idea is that, if successful, it could create a far more lasting solution than a brief strike on Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure, especially a strike that Kerry characterized Monday morning as "unbelievably small."
Experts on chemical weapons and the Syrian government said that it would be next to impossible to know with certainty where all of Assad's sprawling, constantly moving arsenal is residing, much less who is controlling it.
Though Kerry also expressed skepticism that the Syrians would take up the idea, his comments were notable because as recently as the middle of last week he was not talking about any diplomatic initiatives to secure the stockpile. A proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both junior members of the Democratic caucus, to give Assad 45 days to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin to turn over his weapons had yet to catch Kerry's attention.
That changed when Kerry, asked in London about what the Syrian leader could do to avoid attack, declared: "He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that."
Then he added: "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously."
Kerry may be right, but the Syrians have begun to signal that they may be open to the idea, if only to buy time.
By Monday afternoon, White House officials were on the same page. "We would welcome a decision and action by Syria to give up its chemical weapons," Antony J. Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters. But he added that "for 20 years" the United States has tried to get Syria to sign on to the international treaty banning those weapons, and that "it would take time, resources and a peaceful environment."
Within hours, Kerry's nemesis on the issue of Syria, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had his own version of the same idea. "The establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks," he said.
For Obama, these ideas could, at least in theory, be a way out of what many White House officials fear is a looming disaster.
But even if Assad was willing to go along with the concept of turning his arsenal over to international control, the hurdles would be considerable.
But at this point, Obama is looking for a way to avoid defeat in Congress, Kerry is looking for a way to drive Assad and the rebels to the table, and the Russians are looking for a way to keep their Syrian client in power.
And so the pressure seems likely to build to find a way for Assad to make a gesture that could avoid a strike, or at least an immediate one.