The last couple of days have seen an unexpected twist in the ongoing international response to last month's deadly chemical weapons attack in Damascus. US President Barrack Obama had spent much of the last week frantically lobbying congressional politicians to support his plan for punitive military action against the Assad regime, which he blames for the deaths. However an apparently inadvertent remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, who mused that Washington might change course if Syria handed over its chemical weapons stockpile, now appears to have changed everything.
The Russian government, keen to derail US military intervention against its Syrian allies, was quick to jump at the opportunity presented by this statement, presenting such a proposal to the Assad government - one which appears to have been accepted. Obama has now responded by postponing a planned congressional vote until this diplomatic avenue has been explored. The coming days are likely to see yet more wrangling at the UN Security Council. Russia, as a permanent member, has three times blocked aggressive anti-Assad resolutions, leading to the Council's western allies resolving to strike the Syrian government without the UN's backing. Such resolve was undermined when the House of Commons voted down PM David Cameron's intention to engage the UK in the planned strikes. This increased the pressure on France and the US to gain the approvals of their own legislatures, posing a problem for the countries' respective leaders as western public opinion is now firmly opposed to foreign intervention.
Although it was Kerry's remarks that opened the door to this new diplomatic chapter, the possibility that the US might back down from military action if the Syrian government handed over its stockpile was apparently discussed by Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week's G20 summit. Notwithstanding the US President's apparent receptiveness to the idea, serious doubts remain as to whether such a sequence of events would be feasible in reality. Assuming that the Syrian regime is willing to hand over its chemical weapons, international agreement on the destruction of the stockpile may well encounter further UN roadblocks. Eager to retain some semblance of credibility after apparently reneging on their intention to punish Assad for last month's attacks, France and the US will want any resolution to set out the consequences should Syria fail to abide by the agreed terms. Russia, on the other hand, is likely to again use its veto to block any resolution leading to the potential for western military engagement. Experts have also warned about the difficulties of isolating and dismantling a large chemical stockpile, particularly during wartime.
What appears more certain is that Russia's manoeuvrings have dispelled the possibility, in the short term, of punitive strikes on the Assad regime. It has become increasingly clear that convincing a war-weary Congress of the merits of Syrian intervention has been a mountainous task for Obama. His decision to postpone this week's planned vote is an implicit admission that he faced likely defeat. With a diplomatic solution back on the horizon it is now surely even less likely that the President could hope to gain approval for military action. Although Obama, as commander-in-chief, does not need congressional support to rubber-stamp his foreign policy, the manner in which western politicians have talked up the importance of parliament in such matters in recent weeks means that it is unlikely he would defy the views of elected representatives, particularly since David Cameron's retreat in the face of House of Commons defeat. The French, meanwhile, have admitted that they cannot strike Assad alone.
The reality that the short-term risk of foreign military engagement has receded has manifested itself in the resumption of a government air campaign against rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, for the first time since the chemical attacks. Some have welcomed the new diplomatic talks as a triumph of peace and democracy in the context of wide anti-war sentiment. Others will surely feel nervous about a loss of international credibility and a notional emboldening of the Assad regime. It is still highly possible that proposals for removing the Syrian government's chemical weapons capabilities will fall down at the UN level; and conceivable even that a return to military plans will be seriously mooted. The general feeling, however, is that the time for punitive strikes on Assad has passed - for better or worse, it now seems that whatever potential may have existed is gone.