The chances of striking a good deal over Syria’s lethal chemical stockpile with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad lie somewhere between remote and won’t happen. But given the American public’s rejection of yet another intervention by U.S. forces in the Middle East, President Obama is obliged to consider the offer seriously — providing it’s not a ruse by the Syrians and the Russians.
The advantages of arriving at a peaceful solution are manifold. Talking is always better than fighting. And cheaper, too. In addition to accommodating the public’s weariness with foreign military involvement, a deal would preserve the taboo against the use of toxic chemical weapons.
The proposal has already forced the Syrians to admit for the first time that they do indeed possess a chemical arsenal. That’s a long way from getting them to surrender these abhorrent weapons of mass destruction, the kind that most of the world has agreed to avoid using or stockpiling, but it’s a start.
A deal, if it can be achieved, would take one more country out of the chemical-weapons club. It would also produce the benefit of protecting civilians, like the 1,400 or so that U.S. intelligence says were killed in Syria’s Aug. 21 gas attack outside Damascus. And it would allow the United States to act in concert with the United Nations and the rest of the world, which — with the notable exception of France — had failed to provide explicit support for a U.S. military strike against Syria.
At the very least, Mr. Obama has bought some time to figure out how to preserve his credibility and that of the United States after saying that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would cross a red line that would entail serious consequences for the Assad regime. But that should not be an excuse to dither. There’s been enough of that already on the part of this administration.
Thus, the proposal should be conditioned on striking a deal within a limited period of time. Secretary of State John Kerry must figure out quickly if the Russian counterparts he will negotiate with are serious or stalling.
U.N. inspectors, preferably including an American contingent, should be free to go wherever they want in Syria to do their job, whenever they want.
The agreement should also be enforceable. That won’t be easy. Russia has already balked at a proposed U.N. resolution that would make the agreement binding under the threat of force, which implies support of the world body for a military strike on Syria if the pact is violated.
Without an enforcement provision, Syria would be free to keep and possibly use chemical weapons again. The U.S.-Syria standoff would be back to square one. A deal that lacks strict enforcement is a nonstarter if ever there was one.
No one should be under the illusion that doing any of this will be easy. Ridding the nation of chemical weapons could take years. Determining whether the entire arsenal has been surrendered might be next to impossible. To boot, Syria is in the midst of a civil war, putting inspectors at risk as they do their jobs.
That’s why President Obama needs support in Congress for a limited use-of-force resolution. It would give him greater leverage in dealing with the unreliable Russians and Syrians. The American public rightly rejects the idea of another military intrusion in the Middle East, but preserving that option may be the best way to convince the other side that it’s in their interest to make a deal.