Russian plan a welcome option on Syria

September 10, 2013 

For a while, a U.S. attack on Syria seemed inevitable. Now, in one of those rapid turns typical of Middle East events, it appears avoidable. President Obama should seize the opportunity to step back from the brink by accepting a diplomatic solution brokered by Russia with Syria.

Under the deal, Syria promises to destroy its tons of chemical weapons in return for an agreement that the United States will not go through with plans to punish Syria with cruise missile strikes. The strikes were proposed as an answer to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s apparent decision to use chemical weapons on his own people. Assad blames Syrian rebels for use of the banned weapons, but his guilt – and his punishment – must now be secondary to avoiding further chemical attacks and keeping the United States out of the Syrian civil war.

Obama has agreed to work with the United Nations to review the proposal, which calls for Syria to allow the international community to take control of and eventually destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. The deal will not resolve the civil war that has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Syrians and sent a wave of refugees into neighboring nations. But it is more likely to move the conflict closer to peace than choosing to launch missile strikes and triggering unknown consequences.

The proposal lets the United States step back without the loss of credibility that so worried Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain. And it gives Russia a chance to play an unfamiliar productive and peaceful role that may help improve relations between Russia and the United States on other issues. Obama was to address the Syrian issue in a speech Tuesday night in which he originally planned to make the case for military action. Now his options include one that is hopeful rather than ominous.

It’s significant that this sudden outbreak of diplomacy comes amid the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks. It offers a measure of how America has changed its view on military action since the attacks sparked a widespread desire to lash out at the base of the terrorists – Afghanistan – or a possible future source of an attack: Iraq. After long years of deep losses and little lasting progress in both nations, Americans have grown weary of wars that cost so much in U.S. casualties, treasure and prestige. And they’ve grown to know the limits of modern military force in pacifying and improving poor nations divided by ancient hatreds. Polls show a deep opposition to involving the United States in the Syrian civil war.

At first, Obama – a president elected in part because of his opposition to the Iraq War – seemed to don the mantle of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He declared that, with its use of chemical weapons, Syria had crossed a “red line” that he first drew in an offhand remark only to reassert it as a kind of doctrine. Like Bush and Cheney, Obama seemed willing to fire first and consider the effects later.

But then the president made an unexpected – and it now seems crucial – decision to first seek the approval of Congress. Some said his convoluted reasoning for an attack and his delayed approach to carrying it out looked like confusion and lack of conviction. Perhaps it was both. But maybe there was also a design to his dithering, a protracted rattling of sabers that allowed time for a diplomatic option to emerge.

Now it has. There should be no dithering in taking it up. There is much the United States can do to help the tormented people of Syria without missiles. One major assist would be allowing for the confiscation and disposal of chemical weapons that left in the hands of Assad or the rebels could further harm them.

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